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 16—Return 3
Xan and Sheba arrived at the slave market before dusk. The gate guard waved them away at first, explaining that they were closed for the day. He wavered when Xan told him he intended to purchase forty of the men but stuck to protocol: Xan would have to return the following day…and another thing: animals were not allowed inside. The guard kept a wary eye on Sheba the entire time.
It took a small measure of gold in the end, to bribe the man on both counts and to show him Xan did have the means to purchase so many slaves. Only then were he and Sheba admitted.
The guard led them into the crumbling building and down some stone stairs. The slaves, he explained, were allowed outside during the day, but at night they were kept inside. He also informed Xan that if Sheba clawed, bit, or killed any of the slaves, they would be part of his purchase. Xan acknowledged that with a weary sigh.
A long hallway led off at the foot of the stairs, to an arched doorway. They passed through it, into what had likely been the castle dungeon in times of yore. Xan was appalled. It was dark and dank, smelling of rotten food, fear, and despair. Beside him, Sheba snarled, ears flattened.
Did the king realize what the slave market entailed—had he ever visited one? Xan thought not, but wondered if would even matter to a man like Zortiger. O’Rok’s plight was a fine one, forced to tolerate this outrage in his own city.
The guard grumbled at Sheba’s snarl but let it go otherwise. She didn’t seem wild and was by and large behaving herself. It would only take a split second, though, for a beast like that to launch a lethal strike.
“May I suggest,” the guard said, stopping at the last cell on the first row. “This man: he’s young and strong…perhaps a bit underweight, but he’ll fill out…”
Once he’s decently fed, Xan thought, biting back a retort. Then he realized this was the man who’d attempted escape that morning, which likely hadn’t been his first attempt. The guards were eager to be rid of him, to avoid a successful escape, and Shark’s wrath aimed at them.
“What is your name?” Xan asked.
The man met his eye and did not look away. “Peter.”
Xan dismissed the guard, telling him he preferred to peruse the slaves unaccompanied. The guard retreated, reminding him once more about Sheba biting or clawing. She snarled silently at his retreating form.
Xan leaned in toward the cell bars. “We saw you this morning, in the yard.”
Peter blanched and backed into the far corner.
“We would have helped you if you’d have made it through the fence.”
Peter relaxed, stepping up to the bars.
Xan tightened his grip on the staff and asked Peter a series of questions, which he answered openly, one after the next. His answers were all Xan hoped they’d be, and he assured Peter he would be among those purchased that night.
Proceeding down the next rows of cells, Xan engaged each of the occupants in a brief conversation. Fully trusting the warm feel of the staff, he determined which thirty-nine best suited his immediate purpose. Then, calling the guard back, he offered a bag of gold to make the purchase. The guard gulped and hurried off to seek Shark’s approval.
Forty men followed Xan and Sheba out of the slave prison into the light of the rising moon, marking the beginning of the end of the slave trade in Thalick. Peter strode first in line behind them, whispering question after question as they walked.
“All your questions will be answered soon, Peter. Just be patient,” Xan told him.
He led the procession back to the docks and had them board the larger of his new ships. Xan welcomed them all and introduced Sheba, cautioning them against petting or teasing her. She would not harm them, but she would not tolerate any nonsense. Every face bore a puzzled look at being addressed so civilly, but no one said a word, not even Peter. Each of them nodded agreement to what he said, however.
“You will now go down below deck where you can bathe and even shave if you wish—that’s up to you. There are fresh clothes as well, which you will don and then report to the galley for supper. At that time I will answer any questions you might have and outline a proposal,” Xan said.
At this, they all began to murmur, but he held up a hand to silence them. “Wash, dress, and report to the galley: those are your orders.” He flashed a smile with the final word, setting them all at ease.
The men complied, thanking Xan as they passed him. As they headed below deck a buzz of conversation started up, as they guessed and speculated as to what was going on.
Xan and Sheba followed the last of them down the ship’s stairway, veering in the other direction below deck and into the galley. Already the smells of simmering stew and fresh bread hung in the air, and Xan realized he was famished. It had been a very long day, but much had been accomplished.
The cook greeted him warmly, and he took a seat at the head of the table to wait for the men. When they arrived, looking like a whole other group, Xan nodded approval, and dinner commenced.
“All of you are probably wondering why I purchased you today but then proceeded to treat you as…subordinates, if not equals,” Xan said as they ate.
Murmurs and nods confirmed as much.
“Your prayers have been answered. As of this moment, all of you are free men. You may walk off this ship and never look back, but first, if any are considering that, I have a proposal to make.
“I am establishing a security force to be based in this city, to patrol on land and sea. Any here who are interested shall be the first recruits. You will be paid well and shall receive one month’s pay in advance. Those who accept will begin training tomorrow morning at dawn.”
The men gaped in disbelief. Some froze in the act of chewing while others let stew dribble from their spoons in midair. Then they swallowed or set their spoons aside, and the room erupted with shouts of agreement from some and questions from others.
Xan furrowed his brow and then raised a hand to silence them. “Let’s have one question at a time.”
“If we accept your offer, will we be free to resign and leave later?” one man asked.
“Certainly; however I’m investing time and money in those who accept, in order to accomplish a certain task. You will be expected to do what is needed to that end.”
“What will that entail, exactly?” another asked.
“You will form a highly trained military unit, to enforce the law on land and in particular, the sea,” Xan explained. “Right now the pirates rule the sea, and to an extent, the land here, as you all well know.”
Angry grumbles erupted around the table.
“Mayor O’Rok is not happy about this, but his hands are tied to a great degree. He’s done well to confine the pirates to the docks, but he’d as soon banish them, which is where we come in.
“I will go into more detail, but only with those who sign on, here and now. Anyone who does not wish to accept this commission may leave at this time, with the clothes on your back, of course, not to mention full bellies.”
This remark sparked a flurry of hearty laughter.
Only three men departed, in the end, and each shook Xan’s hand firmly and thanked him for their freedom. They also assured him they supported his cause; they simply didn’t wish to be formally commissioned.
Xan then swept the remaining thirty-seven men, notably among them, Peter, with his gaze. “You will soon see that Sheba and I are capable warriors.” He laid a hand on her back. “We will arm you and train you for three days at the oasis. We don’t want Shark and the other pirates to be aware of what we’re doing so that when you are ready we can take them by surprise.
“On the fourth day, we will storm the pirates’ lair and drive them out of Thalick. We will then free the rest of the slaves and close the market for good. Those men will then be given the opportunity to join our security force, which we will call the Coast Guard.”
There was much cheering and even some tears. Xan let them celebrate, smiling as Sheba nudged his arm.
At dawn, they struck out for the desert and set up camp at the oasis. Then their training commenced, with Xan running things similar to the way Jartan had. Crossbow training was a high priority. Sheba patrolled the whole area, night and day, so no one could spy on their operation.
Peter was the most eager and determined of the group, and Xan decided to offer him the station of Guard Commander. On the third day, before training commenced, Xan pulled him aside.
“Yes sir?” Peter said, snapping a sharp salute.
Xan saluted back. “I would like to appoint you Guard Commander of our forces. Are you willing to serve in that capacity?”
Peter’s eyes widened. “I’m honored sir, and yes; I’m more than willing.”
“Very good,” Xan said. “This position will entail leadership training, in addition to what you’ve already learned, but we’ll work that in as we go along.”
That evening they broke camp, returned to the docks, and boarded one of the ships. The captain set sail on Xan’s order, and the ship moved through the channel into the open sea, where they could not be seen or heard. Once Xan’s company was settled, he ushered out a man twirling an ivory cane.
“I am Mayor O’Rok,” he said. “Greetings to all of you. Ultimately, once Xan and Sheba depart, you, as Thalick’s Coast Guard, will report to me, so we thought it would be well to get acquainted.
“I stand behind Xan and his mission here wholeheartedly. He is what I’ve been waiting for—the edge needed to shut down the slave market and drive Shark and his band out of Thalick for good.”
The men cheered.
“Shark plans to sail tomorrow for distant shores, to sell the remaining slaves in markets abroad. The way he ran the market here, is that some of his crew remains behind, to take in newly captured slaves from surrounding cities in the Cavalon realm. The business continues while Shark and the others are sailing; then they return and the cycle restarts.
“Tomorrow isn’t going to go as planned, however.” O’Rok flashed a smile at Xan. The men began talking amongst themselves snickering and nodding approval.
Xan cleared his throat. “Tomorrow we will confront and defeat the pirates in the way we have trained and practiced.”
The ship rang with bellows and cheers. Sheba added a thundering roar and paced the length of the deck, nudging each man with her head and allowing, for once, each to stroke her back.
“One last item of business, before dinner is served,” O’Rok said.
They all fell silent, and Xan stood to stand beside the Mayor. Sheba sat down between them.
Peter proudly stood. “Yes sir.”
“You have been commissioned as Guard Commander of the Thalick Coast Guard.”
The surrounding men murmured approval, and those close enough reached to slap his back. All of them liked Peter and respected his skills. He was a natural, as their company leader.
“Do you accept?” O’Rok said.
“Come forth then.”
Peter moved forward, and O’Rok presented him with a specially crafted sheath, embossed with the image of a roaring mountain cat, to resemble Sheba.
“Wear this on patrol and into battle, as the need may be. From this day forth it shall be passed on and worn only by the Guard Commander, as evidence of his rank.”
“Thank you, Mayor,” Peter breathed, taking the sheath. “I’m honored and vow to honor my commission.”
Early the next morning Xan and Sheba walked through the front door of the pirate enclave and asked to speak with Shark. Thirty of their men with crossbows, and seven with spears, waited outside secretly surrounding the area. Shark soon appeared with two of his men. When Sheba growled they reached for their swords and Xan said, “If you draw your swords she will attack.”
Shark scowled and spat on the floor demanding, “Who are you and what do you want?”
“We are guardians of freedom. We require that you free all the slaves, retreat to your ships and leave this port, never to return. If you try to fight you will be killed and your ship will be confiscated.”
Shark laughed wickedly. “We’re not about to release a single slave. There are over a hundred of us; you are the ones who will die.”
With a roar, he jerked at his sword and Sheba leaped forward sinking her fangs deep into his neck and back. She shook him furiously, then dropped him, lifeless to the floor. In the meantime, Xan took down Shark’s two henchmen with his staff. There was a moment of silence until other pirates started streaming into the room and Xan and Sheba started their dance of death.
After eight had fallen the remainder of the pirates gathered outside but were afraid to enter. Xan and Sheba stepped out and Xan said, “Shark and many of your comrades are dead. You are surrounded by archers. You can die here and now or you can drop your weapons and leave, never to return. Which will it be?”
One giant pirate and two others leaped forward. Sheba struck the giant down with one swipe to the throat while Xan cracked heads and twenty others fell with crossbow arrows in them. Sheba gave a mighty roar, and all the remaining pirates dropped their weapons. Xan yelled out, “Shark’s ship is now ours. We will escort you all to your other ship and you will immediately leave. Any pirates who return to Thalick will be executed. We will have ships patrolling the seas in search of pirates and slave traders. We suggest that you repent before it is everlastingly too late.”
Once the surviving pirates left the harbor, Xan and his men took a count of the slaves: one hundred forty-two men, twenty-seven women, and twelve children. The men were taken to the larger Coast Guard ship and given the same choice as the first forty. One hundred twenty-nine elected to join the Coast Guard, while the remaining thirteen declined, but pledged their loyalty, as the others had. The women and children were taken on board the smaller Coast Guard ship, to be cared for until permanent arrangements for them could be made.
Over the next two weeks, Xan conducted leadership training with Peter and his lieutenants. With three ships now, along with whatever gold the pirates had been forced to leave behind the Coast Guard was off to a good start. Nevertheless, Xan left them enough gold to buy more ships and supplies, hire and equip more men, and cover all expenses for a year. He explained that they were free to keep any booty that was taken from pirates and that as a military force they would eventually be supported by the city and the kingdom.
O’Rok was concerned about King Zortiger’s response to what had transpired, but he held no regrets. Xan informed him that there would soon be a new king who would support everything that they were doing—Thalick was but the beginning of this fight for freedom.
© Copyright 2017-2022 Gene Van Shaar