Lords of Freedom 20


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 20—Captives Freed

Breathing heavily, Xan crested a long steep hill and paused a moment, leaning on his staff. He and Sheba were nearing Merker now; in another hour or so the city would be in view, he surmised.

Uncapping his canteen, he saw that Sheba was standing at attention, peering into the valley below. Taking a quick swig to soothe his parched throat, he moved up alongside her.

In the distance, a line of people moved along. They were tied together with rope, single file, with six guards attending them: two in front, one on either side in the middle, and two bringing up the rear. All of those who were tied together looked young, some very young, with none of them older than their teenage years, he thought.

Anger sparked in Xan, as he watched them struggle along. Sheba laid her ears flat and hissed menacingly at the sight.

At Xan’s signal, she bounded off to scout the area, while he continued to observe from the hilltop. Soon the cat returned, reporting that there was nobody else in the area. However, all six guards had swords, and two of them carried spears as well. In addition to that, one of the men in front had a crossbow, and one at the rear had a long bow. They were a well-organized military unit, by all appearances, so Xan and Sheba hunkered down to strategize.

“Keep moving,” Charley called. “We’ll stop for a little rest soon. At least I hope so.”

Hon looked over at him, but he merely shrugged. He wasn’t in charge out here, the men leading were.

It was a sweltering day, the sun high in the cloudless sky and limited foliage shading the road. Swallowing painfully, her throat parched and dry, she snatched up the hand of a little girl who sat down, crying.

“Come on, we’ll get a nice drink soon.”

The girl looked up at her with a sniff and nodded bravely. Together they marched on, hand in hand.

“Send some canteens down the line,” Charley bellowed.

“Thank you,” Hon said softly, looking over at him and squeezing the little hand in hers.

When Charley manacled her (again for show) at the camp two days ago, she had been roped together with a group of children. For a few days, they’d stayed there, with meager rations and no idea what was in store.

Hon was among the older ones and helped reassure and comfort those younger. It was hard though when they were every bit as frightened. One girl a few years older than Hon had been taken from the group the day before, by guards drunk and lewd. She hadn’t returned, and Hon feared the worst for her.

It was also apparent that the guards, besides Charley had similar plans for more of them. It was sickening to observe how they ogled and talked about them, as though they were sub-human, objects even.

On top of that, she was worried about her parents. At least her father had been tended to, Hon told herself. She hoped that he and her mother were being treated well or possibly even released.

Looking first up the line to the front and then to the rear, Hon licked her lips. The longbow carried by those guards might be enough for her to take the other bad ones out—especially with Charley’s help. The problem came in getting hold of it. She was willing to die in a fight for her freedom and to free the others but hoped it would be the evil guards who did the dying instead.

As the line of shackled children neared, Xan stepped out from a grove of trees, holding his staff, and said with authority, “My name is Xan and I am a guardian of freedom. Who are you and what are you doing with these children?”

The captain shouted back, “We are the duke’s guards on official business; we will kill you and anyone else who stands in our way.”

Xan shouted back: “Listen carefully, this is your only chance. If you release the children unharmed and run to the south, you will live. If you do not run right now it will indicate that you are willing to kidnap and murder. In that case, you can expect to die in the next few minutes.”

Immediately one of the guards marching alongside the group bolted off to the south. The other men swore loudly, jeering and threatening him. The bowman at the rear even shot an arrow but missed. The man zigged and zagged, ducking at last behind a large bush.

With the other guards distracted, the children hobbled off the trail and into a small ravine.

The bowman at the front raised his weapon and fired at Xan, who stepped behind a tree as the bolt went low and wide. As the front bowman bent to reload, Sheba leaped out of trees and slashed the neck of the rear bowman. Then, like a shadow, she disappeared into the trees.

The other rear guard saw what happened and ran forward screaming. As the other four guards looked back, Xan dashed to another tree, about twenty-five paces beyond the two in front. The bowman took aim and shot, hitting the tree. As he reloaded, Sheba flashed out from the side, swatted his head, and then vanished again into the brush.

Heart pounding, Hon spoke quickly to the group, convincing them to move back out of the ravine and over to the fallen guard. Once there, using the dead man’s sword, she cut herself free from the ropes and then handed it off to one of the boys.

“Cut the others free and head back to the ravine,” she told him.

The boy nodded and went to work.

“Keep hold of that sword, too,” she added.

She then picked up the guard’s bow and arrows and slipped off the road, into the trees.

The boy directed the others back into the ravine, once their ropes were cut. Instead of going with them though, he dashed after Hon, armed with the sword.

While the three guards left standing watched the man Sheba had swatted writhe on the ground, Xan surged forward. The captain saw him coming, but he also saw something most peculiar: one of the captives, free and armed with a sword.

With a bellowed oath he grabbed the boy and quickly disarmed him. Then, pressing the sword to the boy’s neck, he snarled at Xan, “Drop your staff now or I will kill him.”

Xan stopped five paces from the man with Sheba at his side. “Do you think I am a fool? If you harm him the cat will eat you alive.”

The captain hesitated, weighing his chances, sword against tooth and claw. Not the best odds, he realized, given the cat’s size, speed, and close range—especially since it would not help him any to slit the boy’s throat.

There was a whiz in the air, and the captain’s eyes bulged. Loosening his grip on the boy and sword, he swayed; then crumbled to the ground.

The boy stood frozen for a beat, gaping at the arrow lodged in the captain’s ribs. Looking beyond, he grinned, then snatched the sword back up and sprinted for the ravine.

In that same instant, Sheba leaped at the last spearman, fangs bared. His spear glanced off her invisible armor as she slammed into him biting and clawing.

Xan was looking where the boy had looked, wondering who had shot the arrow. Whoever it was had signaled the boy’s retreat. Had it been the guard who obediently fled?

These thoughts passed through Xan’s mind in an instant, but he was simultaneously aware of the battle around him. Seeing from the corner of his eye the last guard charging in, he whirled. A quick blow with his staff broke the man’s sword arm, and with a cry, he fell to his knees.

From her perch atop a nearby boulder, Hon drew a deep breath to calm herself. She knew the man who called himself Xan. It was Juel; she knew it was. He was taller now and filled out—even more handsome than she remembered.

She’d made her shot with the arrow, fearing she might hit the boy but confident enough in her skill to take the shot. Foolish of him to follow me, she thought with a shake of her head. Still, it was rather gallant. At least he’d turned tail for the ravine when she waved him off.

When Xan looked in her direction just now, wondering who was behind the arrow, she could barely breathe. Any doubt that he was Juel evaporated in that instant, she was just close enough to see his eyes, the same kind and brooding eyes she remembered.

Watching, she saw him gathering the children from the ravine, giving them water and promising food. The big black cat prowled the group’s perimeter, paying particular heed to the injured guards. She was stunning, both beautiful and deadly, Hon thought.

She was Juel’s pet…no, not that, something much more. It was as though they were…partners, yet how could that be?

She watched him kneel before the gathered children and heard him say, “Don’t be afraid, you’re safe now.”

“What about the big black cat, will it hurt us?” one of the older girls asked.

He smiled kindly. “No, her name is Sheba, and she will not hurt you. She will only hurt bad men, like the ones we just fought.”

“Those men said they were going to do horrible things to us and then sell us to other bad men. Thank you for saving us,” the girl shyly said.

Another child spoke up: “We’re worried about Charley.”

“Who is Charley?” Xan asked.

The boy who’d followed her with the sword answered, “He has been trying to protect us from the others. He is the guard who ran away when you told him to.”

Xan nodded, scanning the area. “Will a few of you children walk out and ask him to come back here now?”

All of them nodded and raced off as a group.

All at once the black cat looked over in Hon’s direction, and she sucked in a breath. On swift paws, Sheba loped to the base of the boulder and bounded onto it with ease.

Hon scrambled back, spilling the bow and arrows over the side and nearly toppling off herself.

“Hello there,” she breathed, looking into Sheba’s eyes.

Sheba regarded her a moment, then nuzzled her knee before springing back down from the boulder where sat down and looked back.

“All right,” Hon said to herself. “I’ve got to come down sometime unless I want to be left behind.”

Xan watched Sheba mount the boulder, thinking, so that’s where the bowman hid; clever. To his surprise, it was a young girl who followed Sheba into view…a very pretty girl with long blond hair and blue eyes.

He smiled as she approached, noting that she looked uncertain. “Nice shot.”

She blushed and looked away with a smile.

“Don’t move,” he then said without turning, aware that one of the guards was half way to his feet.

The man froze, as Sheba trotted over. With a snarl she cuffed him to the ground.

“You came back,” the pretty girl said.

“Back? I mean, yes, I did…do we know each other?  From before, I mean.” Xan paused to shake his head, surprised that he was suddenly flustered.

The girl nodded, looking up to meet his eyes.

All at once he knew her—Cheston’s kid sister…all grown up now. “Honbria?”

She smiled, and his heart missed a beat.

About then, Charley and the children rejoined them, all talking at once. Xan calmed them all and extended a hand. “You’re Charley, I gather—the one guard with a lick of sense.”

“Yes.” Charley reached to shake hands. “I don’t care for this business, but being a prison guard is all I know. I volunteered for this escort assignment hoping to protect the children and help them escape.”

“Cowardly traitor,” one of the downed guards spat.

Xan regarded him with cold disdain; then he motioned to Charley. “What say we restrain them and gag that one?”

Charley nodded, and in no time the guards found themselves blindfolded and bound, and one gagged. Only then did Xan see to their injuries, splinting a broken arm and bandaging several wounds. In the meantime, Charley buried those who had been killed.

Then they moved off, into some trees near a little creek. They made camp and prepared a nice meal with food from the group supplies. While they ate, talked, and relaxed, Xan stood, gathering a measure of food and water.

Walking to the place where the guards were, he removed their blindfolds and untied them. Doling out their supper, he turned and headed back to camp.

“I’ll be back in twenty minutes or so, to tie you back up for the night,” he said over his shoulder.

They exchanged glances and nudged each other, thinking him a fool…until Sheba loomed into view, staring each of them down in turn.

© Copyright 2017-2023 Gene Van Shaar

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