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 21—Strategy
The following morning, while Hon and the older girls prepared a simple meal, Xan went to check on the captive guards, staff in hand. They were awake and cranky, straining at their bonds and cursing him, the moment he stepped into view.
“Sorry for the rough accommodations, but you brought this on yourselves. Have any of you had a change of heart? Do you regret blindly following orders that clearly violate the sanctity and liberty of others?”
The former guards exchanged looks, then one after another they assured Xan that they did see the error of their ways and that they intended to change. They also asked to join Xan, swearing they would answer to him now, like Charley. They’d wanted to run the day before, they all claimed, but they’d been fearful of reprisal from the other guards—their superiors. Charley was brave to have done what he did, all three now admitted.
Xan regarded them in silence for a time; then he set the staff aside and stooped to loosen the ropes binding them to nearby trees. The staff had remained cold during his conversation with the men—they were lying.
He then removed the men’s boots and said, “When you manage to get yourselves the rest of the way untied, do not return to Merker. Rather, head to Thalick and seek medical treatment there. If you return to Merker or fight again for Duke Grudo it will endanger your lives. The next time you fight, let it be for freedom.”
Picking up his staff, he said, “I will bring a light meal for you presently and leave one canteen of water. Do not attempt to free yourselves before we are well on our way. Coming after us would be…hmmm…a bad decision.”
Just then Sheba bounded from the trees and growled in agreement, driving home the point.
“Once Sheba departs, you are free to go to work on the ropes, but remember: head for Thalick.”
Once breakfast was done, they broke camp and started toward Merker. Sheba stayed behind, as intended, to make sure that the bound guards behaved.
The group walked for a time, engaging the younger children in song to pass the time. Then, once Sheba joined them, Xan scanned the group, slowing his pace to walk alongside Honbria.
“We didn’t get much of a chance to talk yesterday—or this morning for that matter.”
She smiled shyly.
He cleared his throat. “Tell me, what is Merker like these days? How are your parents? I have so many questions; I’m not sure where to start.”
“As do I, Juel,” she said. “Where have you been all this time, and how did you come upon Sheba? Oh; and why have you changed your name? I guess I should call you Xan now.”
He nodded. “Much of that must remain a mystery for now, but I’ll tell you what I can. When I fled Merker, it was in peril of my life. I didn’t dare go to your father for help again; that would have endangered all of you. Still, I regret not thanking you all—your father especially and leaving without a formal goodbye.
“I lived in the wilderness for a time, until an amazing man by the name of Solomon took me in. He had a cabin, which was a luxury after living rough for so long. Solomon taught me many things and became a second father to me, you might say.”
He paused with a chuckle. “Maybe Solomon was a third father to me, after your Dad Sergio.”
Hon nodded in agreement with a knowing smile.
“Solomon departed at one point, leaving me on my own but promising we’d meet again at some future time. For a while I lived alone in the cabin, studying and practicing what he’d taught me. There were books and charts, you see, even a contraption to zoom in on the moon and stars at night. Solomon called it a stargazer.”
Xan fell quiet a moment then said, “One night I had a…vision, you might say. I was asleep, but it was much more than just a dream; I don’t know what else to call it. The next day I left the cabin on a quest, outlined in the vision and it led me to Sheba and to where we are now, engaged in liberty’s cause. I’m sorry to be so vague, but for now I must be; hopefully you’ll understand.”
She shrugged. “I hope one day you’ll tell me the rest.”
He nodded, relieved that she’d accepted the bare bones of his tale without question. She really had grown up, not only physically but intellectually. She was roughly the age he’d been when he fled Merker, still young but also mature. To him, she seemed an emotional equal, no longer a little girl but a woman.
She told him of the state of affairs in Merker and her station as scribe and courier. He learned all about her spirited horse, Dawn as well as Castor and the other beavers, including their gruesome fate.
“Cheston and I would have loved the beavers as you did, not to mention their construction skills. Imagine an actual swimming pond,” he interjected at one point. “The men who slaughtered them are evil. Those who savage animals with such abandon are susceptible to doing the same to other people. It seems they proved that out too, according to your tale, but their rampage will come to an abrupt end, rest assured.”
Hon also told him about her parents and the co-op, as well as the midnight raid and arrest at their home. “I’m worried about father and mother. I mean, they’re probably OK, just languishing in jail, but bad things could be happening. What if they’ve been hurt or marched off like I was, in another group…or executed?”
“Rather than dwelling on that, let’s try to have faith and pray for them,” he paused to gently nudge her with an elbow and added, “I’ll do the rest.”
She laughed at that, reassured and heartened, he could see. She sobered far too quickly though, biting her lower lip. When he raised a questioning brow she looked away.
“What is it?”
She drew in a breath. “I have a secret too, an awful one, but you need to hear it.”
“All right,” he said at last, surprised.
She shook her head. “Not yet…not here; there’s too much going on, but soon. Ok?”
“Yes; of course—whenever you’re ready.” He gave her shoulders a squeeze, pleased when she leaned into him.
Both of them looked up to see Charley striding down the moving line.
“Merker is just over that rise, but we may do well to veer east at this point. There’s an armory nearby where weapons are manufactured and stored—not just for Merker but for the entire kingdom,” he said.
“You’re right about that,” Xan said. “I’m aware of the armory, as my father was a blacksmith and we had many dealings with them. Let’s stop here for a little rest and make some plans.”
Charley nodded and called for the group to stop, moving off the road into the shade of some nearby trees. The older children set about making a quick lunch and passing canteens around while the younger ones gathered around Sheba, laughing and appearing to talk to her.
Xan motioned Charley back over and set to work formulating a plan. As they talked, the staff remained warm in Xan’s hand, as it had been with Hon, and he felt a measure of relief that Charley could be trusted. He was a competent soldier with firsthand knowledge, not only of the armory but the prison layout and daily schedule.
In the end, they outlined three primary objectives:
(1) Take over and hold the armory.
(2) Liberate all political prisoners from the prison.
(3) Recruit trustworthy people willing to fight for freedom in Merker.
Once Duke Grudo was ousted from power, a new leader would have to be appointed, someone who could be trusted to rule justly and guard against future tyranny.
Xan signaled to Sheba, and she loped out of sight to the east, to scout the immediate area. While she was gone, Xan, Charley, and Hon ate a quick lunch, quenched their thirst, and relaxed.
Sheba returned presently, reporting to Xan that there was a patrol nearby, composed of ten armed men.
“Perhaps we should push on, put a bit more distance between us and the patrol,” Charley suggested.
Xan shook his head. “Take the children to the banks of the nearby brook and get a fire going. I’ll be back presently with our first squad of allies.”
Charley looked dubious but gave a quick nod. Then he led the group off toward the brook.
Xan met Sheba’s eye. “Now, let’s proceed with a claws-retracted operation.”
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