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 2—Sun Stream
Juel used his short knife to skin the snakes, rolled up the skins, and put them in his pack planning to cure them later. After cleaning himself and his weapons in the stream, he continued up the canyon. The cat followed and soon they came to a place where the stream ran through a thorny bramble that seemed to fill the bottom of the canyon. Knowing from the dream that he had to keep going he used his long knife to hack a narrow trail through the thorns.
The going was slow and tedious, and soon his hands and arms were scratched and bleeding painfully. The sandals he wore were inadequate for a task like this, and despite the care he took, he was soon limping. He paused a moment, looking back, tempted to retreat from the thicket, but the lure of following the stream and his dream drove him on. At first, the cat did not follow him into the thorns but as he made progress it carefully worked its way up so close behind him that it made him edgy. With renewed vigor, he hacked the next branch and the one after, on and on, until at last, he stepped free of the tangle.
Not far away a stream of water ran out from near the bottom of the white cliff forming a crystal-clear pool. It was thrilling to be in the spot he had seen so clearly in his dream, and he had a lingering impression that the spring was somehow sacred. There was no longer any doubt that the dream represented reality.
As he rested, enjoying the beauty before him, the cat bounded past and crouched at the pool lapping contentedly. Limping over, he knelt and filled cupped hands with cool water, drinking deeply and splashing it over his face and neck. Leaning over the pool, he gazed at his reflection, his sandy hair, his light brown eyes, and his tan unblemished skin.
It was getting late in the day, and he realized he was hungry. It did not take him long to find some blackberries, tubers, and wild onions growing on the banks near the stream. Retrieving the tinder box from his pack, he used the flint and steel that he always carried to start a small fire and soon ate a satisfying meal.
As night fell, the canyon cooled and he enjoyed the crackling flame, his thoughts turned to the night he’d fled Merker. He’d gathered what he could and made his way through the city, a bulging bag in hand and an overstuffed pack on his back. On his way out of town, some of the duke’s guards spotted him. One of the guards recognized him as Ravi’s son and ordered the others back to their post. Juel ran down an alley, but it was blocked off. Then the guard moved toward him, drawing his sword, and said, “I’ll finish you off just like your father and whatever you have in those bags will be mine.”
Juel realized that the guard was Ravi’s old rival and one of his father’s murderers. He dropped the bag and the pack, discreetly slipping the long knife and hatchet from his belt. He ducked a clumsy sword swing and realized that the guard was drunk. With a roar, the guard lumbered forward raising his sword again. Remembering some of the moves his Dad had taught him, Juel deflected the sword with an inside-out hatchet swing and jumped inside the sword’s reach plunging his knife into the guard’s neck just above the leather armor. Retrieving his pack and bag he quickly slipped into the night and out of the city.
As he sat watching the fire Juel next remembered the only man he had encountered in the wilderness. It happened when he was so tired and hungry that he did not know if he would survive. He had been climbing a rock formation trying to retrieve a wounded squirrel when he slipped and fell from a spot about twice as high as he was tall. The next thing he knew a man was standing over him with a smile on his face. Not long later he was in a cabin under a blanket with a bandage around his head. There was a fire crackling in the nearby hearth, and through the window, he saw that it was raining.
The man who had helped him entered the room, sipping from a steaming mug. He was old but moved gracefully with an agile step. His white hair was neatly cut, his chin cleanly shaved, and he had a trim, well-muscled physique, bringing to Juel’s mind a retired knight. The man’s green eyes twinkled, and he said in a deep, kindly voice, “My name is Solomon.”
Gratefully, Juel reflected on all the amazing things he had learned from the recluse scholar who had been his mentor and teacher during the last three years.
As he lay there pondering, he noticed the cat circle around and find a spot to lie down. He watched the cat’s eyes scanning the darkness, its ears moving to take in the sounds of the forest as its tail twitched. The cat’s alertness actually helped him to relax and his eyes wandered to the sky. Marveling at the brightness and beauty of the stars he eventually fell asleep.
He was jolted from slumber by a thundering sound and was just able to make out the silhouette of the cat bounding into the darkness. Vicious growls, snorts, and squeals filled the night. After grabbing his spear he quickly built up the fire. The flickering light revealed movement in the trees near the pool. He whirled from side to side keeping the fire at his back, expecting an attack at any moment.
Before long the sounds faded, and it became deathly quiet. Then out of the silence, the shady form of the cat came into view dragging a large boar. Realizing that the cat had just protected him from a herd of wild hogs, he gazed at it with gratitude but what he saw stunned him. The cat’s black pupils almost crowded the amber from its eyes, and blood covered its muzzle, dripping from its long white teeth. Looking into the face of death he thought he saw a satisfied smile. He watched the cat sit down and clean itself until all the blood was gone. He thought that being in the presence of an apex predator was not so bad if you are not the prey. With this imposing cat seemingly on his side, he felt comfortable going back to sleep.
Just before dawn, he woke to the sound of cracking bones. Rising to one elbow he watched the cat lick the marrow out of a large boar bone that had already been stripped of meat. When the cat started cleaning its long retractable claws, he felt a wave of relief that it wasn’t his dried blood being licked. Satisfied with its claws, at last, the cat sank its teeth into the remains of the boar, dragged it near him, dropped it, and backed away. Hoping he understood, he moved closer, and the cat sat down. Carefully he cut thin strips from the boar, used sticks to hold them over the fire, and enjoyed the taste and smell of fresh meat.
When the cat went to the pool to get a drink, he noticed that it had a slight limp. Moving carefully closer he observed three more things. First, the cat had almost invisible dark gray stripes. Second, the cat was female. And third, there was a boar tusk embedded in her left front shoulder. When he got close, she stopped lapping, looked at him, and then resumed drinking. Just a few paces from her he sat down, and so did she.
Looking into the cat’s eyes, he started to talk to her. He told her how beautiful she was, mentioning her sleek back fur and her stunning amber eyes. As he spoke, he started scooting closer to her. He told her what a great hunter she was and thanked her for saving his life and sharing the meat. When he was close enough, he slowly reached out and touched her injured shoulder, hoping that she would not bite his arm off.
Speaking soothingly he explained that he would remove the tusk if she approved. Knowing he was taking a risk but hoping she would allow him to relieve her pain he eased the tusk out using his small knife on one side and his fingers on the other. She held perfectly still, although she did flatten her ears against her head.
When the operation was complete, he used water from the pool to clean out the wound. To his surprise, the water in and around the wound turned white and started to bubble but did not seem to hurt her.
After rinsing two more times he could see that the wound was healed. Moments later a large and coarse tongue licked the side of his face. Tentatively scratching behind one of her ears he started to hum and then there was a friendly session of licking, scratching, humming, and deep rumbling purring that resonated in his chest.
His early morning explorations soon revealed a picture etched into the red rock cliff across from the spring. It was a picture of what appeared to be a sun with a stream running vertically through it.
This rock picture reminded him that it was the very day of the vernal equinox, the spring day when the sun is at the exact center of its semi-annual course back and forth along the horizon. On only one other day during the year, the autumnal equinox, would the sun rise at the exact spot it had that morning. Solomon had taught him much about the sun, moon, and stars during their time together, and this was the same symbol he’d seen on the red sandstone wall in his dream.
Backing away, he looked at the top of the red cliff and saw there was a small arch. Returning, he sat with his back below the sun stream picture. As he watched with anticipation, the shadow of the arch moved down the white cliff on the other side until it outlined a large thorn bush at the base of the white cliff before disappearing. At that moment he was sure that there was great intelligence behind the timing and substance of the dream. When he crossed over to the other side, he found the faint lines of three concentric circles on the white cliff near the thorn bush. The cat was sitting a little way off, still as though carved from ebony, gazing up at the three circles. At that moment he remembered that Solomon had once drawn three similar circles on the ground and told him that it represented all truth circled together into the rings of eternity. Gazing at it, Juel felt a sense of peace wash over him.
His dream once again came to mind, and his heart began to pound. He knew there’d be an opening nearby, but he could not see it. There was only a dense thicket of brambles, growing flush against the cliff.
“It has to be here,” he muttered to himself, turning in a slow circle and regarding the arch and each of the two symbols once again. Then using his edged tools, he began carving a crawlspace between the thicket and the cliff and soon uncovered a narrow cleft. He shoved the pack through and then edged after it, feet first. As he scuttled, he wondered if the great cat would follow.
Looking back he said, “Come with me.”
A testy yowl sounded in reply. He sighed and continued himself; it wasn’t as though he could drag her along, and maybe she was too big. Moments later though, he felt warm breath on his neck; she wasn’t thrilled, but she was coming along.
There was a bit of a drop, and not expecting it, he almost tumbled but caught himself and carefully climbed down. The big cat sprang, body flexing, to land gracefully beside him. They were in a shallow cave, and as looked around, he saw a third symbol etched into the white stone. It depicted a pyramid inside a circle and a square.
This symbol was the last thing he had seen in his dream. For a time he merely stood, tracing the etched lines with his finger. He placed the palm of his hand over the symbol, but nothing happened. He’d gone as far as he could, yet he knew his journey was not completed. He closed his eyes, seeking inspiration as Solomon had taught him. At first, his thoughts were scattered, but breathing deeply he cleared his mind, imagining a vast desert of endless sand. Then, in his mind, a door with a heavy metal knocker appeared, and his eyes snapped open.
Looking down, he saw a few stones and knelt to pick up one of the larger ones and made three raps in the center of the symbol. Then the wall began to shimmer, and he let the stone drop from his hand, drawing in a quick breath. The wall was now transparent; not only that, when he extended a tentative hand it passed easily through, yet nothing beyond was visible.
Drawing his hand back, Juel looked over at the cat. She blinked at him and lashed her tail and stretched herself forward, letting her whiskers test the unknown area before them. When she drew back and looked up at him, unblinking now, he nodded. Then both stepped forward, through the looming space, in an exercise of faith.
© Copyright 2017-2022 Gene Van Shaar