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 15—Return 2
At dawn Xan broke camp and loaded his pack, mere hours, he guessed, from Thalick. He and Sheba were at a desert oasis, a sparkling pool set like a diamond in the vast surrounding wasteland.
The first days had taken them through a mountainous forest; then they’d entered this desert, offering nothing but sandy soil and sagebrush. Yesterday had been a long and miserable day, with no cover from the blazing sun and warm canteen water to drink. Now there were trees visible in the distance, flanking one last sand dune. According to the map, Thalick lay just beyond that.
With the packs on Sheba’s broad shoulders, they headed off, striding easily along in companionable silence. After a time, Sheba said, in her way, “There are people nearby; a number of them.”
Scanning the area ahead, Xan saw nothing at first, but then he noticed a long moving line, like a caravan. From their angle of travel, he figured they’d cross paths near the looming sand dune.
“I’d like to get a look at them before they see us,” Xan said.
He broke into an easy jog, and Sheba accelerated to a trot beside him. At the foot of the dune, they hunkered down in a crevice lined with the last tufts of sagebrush to wait. As the group drew closer, Xan saw that the majority of the people were in chains, looking ragged and fatigued. There were four supervising men, looking shabby and winded themselves, keeping the procession moving.
“Slaves, bound for the market in Thalick,” Xan breathed.
Sheba replied with an angry hiss.
They let the procession pass by, and then followed discreetly behind them. There was a pathway up over the dune, and at the crest, Xan stopped. The group was marching along the downward path, but his eyes were focused beyond them.
The sea was visible in the distance, beyond a rocky embankment that formed a large lagoon. Ships of every kind were docked there—even a fancy ferry boat. A channel bisected the embankment, leading to the open sea—the only way in and out of Thalick by sea.
The city spread inland, breathtaking in the morning light, with wide roads lined with palm trees and buildings of varying sizes and shapes. He could see clusters of fine homes and what must be public gardens, with large grassy areas, shade trees and flowers.
Xan nudged Sheba, and they fell back into step, electing to follow the group of slaves toward the city. Past the shipyard, around a mountainous bend, was a crumbling structure, perhaps the remnants of an ancient castle. Cautiously they crept closer then hunkered down in a copse of pine trees.
Guards met the group at the gates and took over, sorting the people into groups: women and children, young boys, and then grown men. The guards who’d marched them in disappeared into the building, presumably to bathe, eat and relax after their journey.
Another man entered the courtyard from the building, well over six feet tall and hefty—one who’d have made a fine gladiator, back in the crumbling castle’s day. He was bald and wore a gold hoop in his right ear, with a puckered scar that ran the length of his cheek. The clothes he wore were fine, as were his shiny black boots, and at his waist, a sword was sheathed.
At the same time, through a side door, another man appeared. He was unkempt and wiry, with curly red hair and a furtive manner: an escaping slave? Ducking low, he broke into a sprint; surprisingly fast in his condition, bound for the perimeter fence.
Xan tensed, cheering him on silently, prepared to signal to him and aid his escape. One of the guards with the newly arrived slaves spied him though and shouted. The slave ran still harder, pumping his arms and tucking in his head.
The guard who’d shouted took off, shouting again for him to stop as he angled across the courtyard to intercept him. The man made it to the fence, where, Xan saw, there was a hidden breach—something the man had worked on, over time, perhaps.
He dropped to his knees, scrambling at the gap, but the guard nabbed him, grabbing both his arms and yanking him back, onto his back in the dirt. The guard kicked him, and the man curled into a ball with a moan, prelude to a howl of frustration.
“What is this?” the giant man demanded, striding over.
“A fool’s errand, Shark; nothing more,” the panting guard replied. “I’ll take him back inside and shackle him.”
“Don’t bother,” Shark snarled, unsheathing his sword.
The man on the ground froze at the sound and looked up wildly. “No; please…”
Shark leaned over menacingly. “There are only two ways out of this place: you are sold, here or abroad, or you die, on your own or with assistance. No one escapes, and anyone who tries…”
“Don’t kill me,” the man gasped.
Shark straightened thoughtfully. ”Fortunately for you, you’re a grown man, so killing you would be financially foolish, and I’m no fool.”
“No, no you’re not; of course you’re not,” the man stammered hopefully.
“If I let you live and you try to escape again…” Shark paused, as though considering. “That would make me a fool.”
“I wouldn’t though,” the man cried.
His eyes flashed back to the breach in the fence. He was lying. He’d try again at the first opportunity, but to do that, he had to survive the next few minutes. Xan saw this clearly and nodded silent approval.
Shark however did not. “Crawl over here and lick my boots, as a show of good faith.”
The man looked up at him, then rolled onto his knees and crawled the several feet that separated them. Shark sheathed his sword, smiling wide as the man clenched his eyes and lowered his head to the first boot.
Xan signaled Sheba and backed slowly away, disgusted, tempted to storm the courtyard right then. Rash action would spell defeat though, and alone they could not defeat that many pirates. Sheba was growling, low in her throat, echoing his thoughts.
“Your day is coming, Shark, sooner than you think,” he muttered, once they reached the road.
The crowds in downtown Thalick threw both Xan and Sheba furtive looks at first, but the people seemed cheerful and friendly, so gradually both lowered their guard. With the pack over Sheba’s back, she’d hopefully pass for domestic, if not docile; the last thing they needed was to draw unnecessary attention right then.
Spectacular buildings and quaint little shops lined the streets, with the city complex most impressive. This was where they’d find Mayor O’Rok.
On a whim Xan circled the grounds, enjoying the lush flower gardens and towering trees. There was also a beautiful fountain with three tiers and circulating, cascading water.
Xan stood before it, breathing in deeply to calm himself. Sheba stretched at his side, extending her claws and then retracting them with a wide toothy yawn. Meeting Sheba’s eye, he nodded, ready now, as was she, to meet the Mayor.
Their entrance into the main complex building caused quite a stir. Guards stopped them, with attendants calling out from behind their desks that animals were not allowed inside. Xan was expecting as much and calmly requested a meeting with Mayor O’Rok but refused to leave Sheba behind.
“Tell the mayor I’m here—we are here…” he looked pointedly at Sheba. “…on a mission of liberty, and with or without him we’ll carry it out. I respect your rules though and will wait outside by the fountain if that is what he deems. There is no time to lose, so tell him my wait will be brief.”
Xan turned with Sheba, back toward the door.
“Hold up there, sir,” a brisk voice called.
Xan paused, turning around and looking up to see a distinguished middle-aged man with an ivory walking cane, standing on the upper-level walkway. He looked a bit impatient, being disturbed this way—likely he’d heard the commotion and come out of his office to investigate. His expression morphed quickly to one of wonder, seeing Sheba, and he almost smiled.
“I’ll see you, both of you if I must, but up here, in my office.” He signaled one of the guards to escort them upstairs.
Xan and Sheba followed the guard across the lobby and up a winding set of marble stairs. The guard glanced over at Sheba several times, and on the way through the upper hall above, he softly said, “She’s beautiful.”
Xan nodded, holding back a smile when Sheba gave a little purr.
“She understood?” the guard exclaimed, looking between them.
Again Xan nodded. “She’s much more than a mere animal.”
They found O’Rok at the window in his office, looking over the grounds. He turned when they entered and promptly extended a hand. His grip was firm and he motioned Xan toward a chair at his desk.
He took his own seat, and Xan noticed the ivory cane, left propped against the windowsill. It’s just for show, he thought, admiring the piece. Then he tightened his grip on his staff, prepared to judge the truth in O’Rok’s words.
“You have a most unusual and impressive companion,” O’Rok said, as Sheba sat down on the floor, her head well above the desk.
“She is that, and much more. I am Alexandros, Royal Guardian of Freedom, and this is Sheba, Regal Guardian. We have been commissioned by deity to fight for freedom.”
O’Rok’s eyes widened. “I am honored and will assist in any way I can in your mission.”
“That is well,” Xan said, pleased with the response and the reverence in O’Rok’s tone. “Let me open with a question: How do you feel about the pirates and their slave market here in your fair city?”
O’Rok rocked back in his chair, obviously surprised by such a direct inquiry. Clearing his throat, he planted both hands on his desk. “I detest the concept of slavery and would like nothing more than to rid Thalick of it, along with every last pirate.”
“Yet the pirates thrive here, in their enterprise,” Xan observed.
O’Rok flushed and looked away briefly. Almost at once though, he looked back. “Alexandros know this: if it were in my power, I’d free the slaves and abolish slavery from both land and sea without delay.”
“You are in charge here, and by the way, you may call me Xan.”
O’Rok nodded quickly. “Yes, Xan, but I lack the manpower to free the slaves and drive the pirates off. I have guards, but no army, which is what it will take to accomplish that. King Zortiger is in league with Shark, which is why no duke reins here…merely a mayor…” His voice trailed off, and sadly he shook his head.
The staff in Xan’s hand was warm, telling him that O’Rok spoke the truth. As well, the mayor’s earnest, open manner ensured he could be trusted. Xan considered things a moment, disturbed at the notion of King Zortiger backing Shark from the shadows.
“I perceive that you are a good and honest man, O’Rok. Except for the pirates and their slave trade, Thalick is a wonderful city, which reflects quite well on you. I believe that you stand for freedom and will outline for you our plan.”
O’Rok leaned forward eagerly, rubbing his hands together and hoping that this might be the way to get rid of Shark and abolish slavery in Thalick.
Of course there was King Zortiger to consider, but this man, Alexandros, whose very name meant warrior, defender, and protector, had a plan. O’Rok decided then and there he was willing to do his part.
After their meeting concluded, Xan nodded to himself, duly impressed with O’Rok. Not only would the Mayor back him up in his plan, he wanted to play an active part. Xan chuckled, thinking about the revisions they’d agreed on. Shark was in for some serious aggravation, a prelude to his ultimate demise.
Xan and Sheba went straight to the shipyards and used some of the gold to purchase the two largest ships available. They also hired a captain and some seamen to tend and prepare the ships.
The variety of goods and services for sale in Thalick was most impressive—anything one could imagine, and some things Xan had never seen were on display in shop windows or arranged on sidewalk carts.
His focus though was on weapons and provisions. He needed to arm, clothe, and feed about 200 men. Several vendors were required for this, and with a measure of gold, he secured all he’d need, arranging for the merchants to deliver most of the supplies to his ships. He also arranged to have weapons and other supplies delivered to, and guarded at, the oasis where he and Sheba had camped on the way to town. The merchants were more than happy to comply, as his payment had been generous and the special instructions earned them a gratuity.
Exotic foods and beverages were available in scores of restaurants, filling the air with mouthwatering smells. Xan stopped at an outdoor café for lunch: a generous serving of mutton and vegetables, with spiced cider for him and a raw foreleg with water for Sheba.
After they ate, Xan realized people were gaping at Sheba as they passed on the sidewalk. None seemed overly anxious though, so perhaps the pack look was working. More than anything, the surrounding people seemed warily curious.
A group of children approached, surrounding them and asking to pet Sheba. Xan told them not to, explaining that she was not a pet, and that although she was well-behaved, she was very fierce.
Sheba conveyed thanks to him—he’d told them precisely the truth.
The children were disappointed but backed off and continued on their way. Xan was relieved that they’d been so respectful. A group of that size could cause quite a stir—he remembered such antics himself, long ago in Merker.
By midafternoon there remained only the last and most vital task to accomplish that day. Resolutely he set off, with Sheba at his side, bound for the pirate enclave. He hoped to purchase forty of the grown men, to form his initial freedom force…and one of those men, if at all possible, would be the curly redhead who’d tried so valiantly to escape.
© Copyright 2017-2022 Gene Van Shaar