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 17—Honbria 5
The forest grove was in a bustle, with sounds of livestock and barter rising in the air. Honbria watched the farmers and craftsmen interact, seeing optimism materialize before her eyes. Children scooted about underfoot, laughing and hollering back and forth. It was a far cry from the first time she’d come here—the peasants somber and apprehensive, the children downcast and melancholy. They’d lost hope and fallen prey to the grind of mere survival day in and out, with no goal in sight and no chance of raising their station.
The co-op was a huge success, open weekly, at a different location each time. Sergio had done his best to keep it secret, but word had seeped out, bit by bit, eventually reaching Duke Grudo’s ear.
He was incensed that goods were changing hands without any payment of tax. That wasn’t right, but there didn’t seem to be any way to collect it, besides an egg here and a jug of milk there. Thus, the organizers had to be unmasked and the enterprise shut down. So far though, Duke Grudo was chasing shadows.
Hon moved to the perimeter of the grove, where the wagons and horses were. This was a day free of court hearings and business, and she relished the fresh air of the forest, of no set schedule and no airs to put on.
Dawn was tethered at the perimeter’s perimeter, so to speak: near the other horses but far enough away to allow the craftsmen and farmers to come and go without getting too close. The horse nickered softly, and Hon stroked her neck, thinking she’d mount up and take a ride through the hills before sundown.
She wanted to visit Castor and his beaver clan; it had been a while since she’d been to the dam. As well, she intended to practice a bit with her bow, hidden in a crevice of rocks within a small cave, upriver. She’d have to be careful, of course, but the place was isolated, well off the forest road. Besides, Dawn was as good as any watchdog, stomping the ground and tossing her head, well in advance of any approach.
On cue, Dawn did just that.
“Easy girl,” Hon murmured, thinking the co-op was getting a bit boisterous for the horse, coupled with so many strangers near.
Then four figures emerged from the tree line, pausing mere feet from her and Dawn. They were focused on the others though, missing her entirely as they nodded to each other and fanned out into the crowd.
They were rough-looking and burly, with mud splattered clothes and sweaty brows, as though they’d just finished a hard day’s work. They carried shovels, axes, and picks, but they didn’t appear the honest working type; rather, they looked like miscreants fresh out of trouble.
One of them walked with a pronounced limp, she saw and noticed dried blood on their clothes and hands, mingled with the dirt and grime. Affixed to each one’s tunic was a small button bearing the duke’s crest. She’d be the only one who knew what they were or even noticed, though due entirely to her duties as scribe. She didn’t recognize the four as attendants or guards, yet they did look familiar, and given the buttons, she felt she should know them, at least in passing.
Hon watched with growing unease, as gradually the co-op quieted and commerce ceased.
“Who’s in charge here?” one of the men demanded.
Silence answered him.
Suddenly Hon realized why they seemed familiar, as a pit formed in her gut. These were the four bandits who’d terrorized the family who’d been sent to prison on weapons charges. These men must have served their jail time and were now embarked on the ordered community service, which explained the buttons and why they looked familiar.
What, though were they doing out here? Community service would be done within the city, would it not? Perhaps they’d finished for the day and had ventured off to….what—meditate their ongoing reform amidst the majesty of nature? Surely not; whatever they’d been up to it was no good, of that Hon was certain.
The man with the limp signaled the others; then chomped his teeth against his lower lip. He looked ridiculous, and drew bellowing laughs from his cohorts. The surrounding peasants merely looked baffled. Hon narrowed her eyes as the pit in her stomach took on weight—was that the imitation of a beaver?
“Yup,” one of the men said. “They’re every bit as talkative.”
“I’m in charge. Do you have something to trade? If not, be on your way. We don’t want any trouble, but we’ve got you five to one here, man to man.”
Hon looked over at the sound of her father’s voice. Her mother had grasped his arm, but he pulled free and stepped forward. Every man in the crowd fell in behind him. This gave the four men pause, and as one they stepped back, one pace, then two.
“You’ll regret this,” another of them said, and they vanished back into the brush.
Relief mixed with growing apprehension washed over Hon, and quickly she mounted Dawn. With a wave to her mother, she urged the horse off, bound for the beaver dam.
She headed west first, rather than north which would have been quicker, to avoid the four men. Eventually she did veer north, well clear of the men, assuming they’d headed back into the city. Reining Dawn in, she listened but heard nothing save birds in the trees and the nearby river. Confident again, she spurred the horse back into a gallop.
When she rounded the last bend Dawn whinnied and reared up. Unprepared, scrambling futilely at the saddle horn, Hon tumbled to the ground. Gasping, she pushed up to her knees, glad she’d landed in a grassy spot, as most of the ground was hard packed and rocky. Still, she’d hit hard and winced a bit as she stood.
“Dawn,” she exclaimed, brushing off. “What’s gotten into you?”
The horse stood wild eyed, backing away. Quickly Hon snatched up the reins then looked around to see what had spooked her so.
She gasped and backed up too, seeing Castor sprawled dead nearby with an arrow in his side. Lashing the reins to a nearby tree limb, Hon ventured closer, tears welling in her eyes.
The dam was destroyed, torn to shreds with the river routed back to the duke’s canal, bound for the city gardens again. More beavers lay dead all around, with several floating in what was left of their pond. Sinking to her knees, Hon couldn’t hold back a sob; certain this was the four men’s community service for the day. They’d enjoyed themselves too, no doubt.
Behind her, Dawn stamped, and her bridle jingled when she tossed her head, but Hon ignored her. Only when she heard a rustle in the brush did she look up, fearing the four men had returned.
Hon blinked in surprised relief tough, as a familiar figure stepped into view. “Vida?”
Her friend strode quickly over and crouched beside her. “Are you hurt? What’s happened?”
Hon embraced her, crying on her shoulder a minute; then at last she pulled back. “Dawn threw me, but I’m not hurt. It’s just…” She extended an arm to the carnage all around.
Only then did Vida see and suck in a hard breath. “These are your beavers—the ones you told me about. What happened; do you know?”
Hon nodded and told her about the four men at the co-op.
Vida widened her eyes. “Your father is the one behind the co-op?”
Hon froze a moment but then nodded. She hadn’t seen Vida since their disagreement, so of course she hadn’t known, but even so, this was a secret she’d have kept—for Vida’s sake as well as her father’s.
She won’t say anything though, Hon assured herself, just then noticing her friend was dressed in travel gear, with a bulging pack nearby.
“What’s going on here?”
Vida flushed and picked up the pack. “I’m leaving Merker, for good.”
“What?” Hon exclaimed. “Where will you go?”
Vida looked away, scuffing the dirt with her boot. “Anywhere.”
Vida merely shrugged.
“It’s illegal for citizens to leave Merker; you know that. How do you plan to get past the guard?”
Hon rolled her eyes. “Look, it’s dusk; soon it will be dark. Why don’t you come home with me, eat supper with us and get a good night’s sleep? It’ll be like the good old days, when we were little.”
Vida smiled; then she shook her head. “I need to leave at night. That way I have a chance at least; there’s no way I’ll make it in broad daylight.”
True, Hon had to admit.
She moved forward and hugged Hon again. “I’ll miss you, and I’ll write, once I’m settled.”
“Wait,” Hon grabbed for her, but Vida slipped away and sprinted out of view.
Hon dashed after her, along the trail and around a sharp bend, stopping under a massive oak. To her surprise, Vida was nowhere in sight. Hon turned in a slow circle, baffled. Then she walked around the huge tree, scanning the area as she went.
There was no answer, not so much as a snapping twig. As impossible as it seemed, city-girl Vida had given her the slip. Hon circled the oak again; then she headed back down the trail, scanning the ground for tracks. It was rocky though, so no prints were evident, nor was the surrounding foliage disturbed.
Still, Hon thought with a heavy sigh, I was right on her tail. It’s like she vanished into thin air.
The sky was darkening by that time, ruling out any bow practice, so Hon decided to head home. A stiff breeze gusted, rustling through the trees and tousling her hair. As she swept it back from her face, an acorn dropped from the towering oak.
In the clearing, she crouched one last time next to Castor and gingerly stroked his lifeless head. Then, dashing a tear from her cheek, she mounted Dawn.
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