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 22—Patrol and Armory
Roghaar raised a hand, halting the march of the nine men behind him. After years stationed at the duke’s estate, his reassignment to the armory patrol was a welcome one. Out here there were no dignitaries to bow to, no city politics to endure, and best of all, he never saw the duke.
The patrol warned of invaders, though there hadn’t been any of those in years—the state of the city was deterrent enough on that count. There were robbers on occasion though, who had to be caught and transported to the prison. Of late though, fleeing citizens were what propelled the armory patrol to action.
These people were likely criminals or at least treasonous, according to the duke, but to Roghaar, they seemed more like law-abiding citizens wanting to travel abroad. That might not have been a problem…if only they’d return.
Sadly, Roghaar shook his head. Duke Grudo was ruling Merker with an iron fist, running the city into the ground with his tyranny. Commerce was at a near standstill and the people of Merker lived in fear. Not only that, they resented it, having been free and prosperous once. It was no wonder so many had moved away to other cities.
“Think we’ll see any pretty fleeing fugitives tonight?” one of the men, Sven, asked, drawing chuckles through the ranks.
Roghaar shrugged. “Not likely.”
Last week a teenage girl had fled the city, but they’d spied and captured her with relative ease. Surprised to realize he knew her, Roghaar had suggested they turn a blind eye and release her—Honbria’s friend, Vida. Though he knew Vida only in passing and got the feeling she didn’t like him at all, he did like Honbria and had enjoyed training her older brother Cheston for military service years ago.
“I know you wanted to let her go, but she’d have died out there on her own,” Sven said, as the men began setting up camp for the night.
Roghaar sighed. “Maybe, maybe not; there are travelers who might have helped her, and there are outlying communities nearby. She could have hopped from one to the next all the way to Thalick.”
Sven shrugged now. “Fine; the next pretty fugitive we see, we’ll ignore.”
Soon there was a fire blazing, and they unpacked a bit of food. After dinner, as darkness settled in, Roghaar saw a figure emerge from the trees.
He looked young and wore no armor, with only a staff in hand. His step was sure, like he had a specific purpose in mind. This was no fugitive or robber.
“Take a look yonder,” he said, pointing.
The men looked, murmuring and reaching for their weapons.
“What is he, a shepherd?” Sven muttered.
The men snickered, but Roghaar did not. The man looked awfully confident, faced off against so many as he said, “I come in peace; we need to talk.”
Two of his men drew their bows and aimed at the stranger as he stepped back behind the tree. At the same time, a large black shadow sprang from the darkness and jumped between the bowmen hitting one in the stomach and the other in the side of the head. As they sprawled on the ground, the shadow which he could now see was a huge cat, let out a vicious snarl and batted two more men knocking them down. The cat was too close for archery, and swords were coming out when the stranger was suddenly in their midst swinging his staff and three more men went down.
Roghaar and his last two men swung their swords at the stranger but he gracefully danced out of their reach and punched back with the end of his staff putting another man down with a blow to the chest. The staff rotated in the air as if by magic knocking away the sword of his last man as the cat took him down. Roghaar tried to get within striking distance but the stranger stepped to the side and swept his legs with the staff causing him to land on his back. Not understanding how ten well-trained men could be so easily defeated he looked up at the stranger expecting to receive another blow. Smiling, the stranger said, “What is it about, I come in peace that you do not understand?”
The cat prowled among them as the stranger gathered their weapons and had them sit tightly in one spot, saying, “I am Xan and my companion is Sheba. Why do you suppose that she fought with claws retracted?”
No one spoke as Roghaar looked around, noted that none of his men had serious injuries, and finally said, “I suppose because you came in peace, not wanting to harm us, and you want to talk.”
“Ah, that’s better. Now I would like each one of you to take a turn telling me how you feel about freedom.”
Surprised by the question, Roghaar spoke first, saying that he loved freedom and would even fight to defend it. Six others, Sven among them, said basically the same thing. Three said nothing about freedom but rambled on about following orders.
Xan directed them to sit apart from the rest. They shuffled off, but then one of them lunged at him with a knife he’d kept hidden. Xan promptly knocked him senseless with a blow from the staff. He then tied the three men securely, blindfolded them, and had Sheba drag them off, out of earshot.
“I am a freedom fighter,” Xan said to those remaining. “Within a few days, those who fight with me will be free, and many who fight against me will be dead. I will answer any questions now; then each of you must decide whether you are with me or against me.”
Roghaar noticed that the cat paced while Xan gripped the staff as the discussion progressed. The man seemed on the level, a skilled and competent leader, and the black cat Sheba was magnificent. He’d much prefer them on his side than not, but what if he’d come with ill intent, to trick and mislead them? They’d only just met, after all.
“How can we trust each other enough to make this decision so quickly?” Sven asked, as though reading Roghaar’s mind.
“I trust you Sven, and I do not trust those other three. I could have killed you all easily, but that is not my intent. I’m seeking a force to back me, to liberate the city of Merker and unseat the duke. I require trust in return. Thus, I ask again: are you willing to join me in the coming fight for freedom?”
Starting with Roghaar each one of the seven committed to the cause.
Feeling the warmth of his staff, Xan smiled. “Excellent, you there, the one in charge—what’s your name?”
Xan nodded. “Roghaar, I appoint you captain of our scout forces which will hereafter be called Roghaar’s Rangers. You now have six rangers under your command, and I expect that number to increase greatly very soon.
“Now, go to the other three and release them. Issue strict orders for them not to follow us or interfere in any way. Make sure they know that to disobey will mean certain death.”
Leaving the fire burning for the three men, Roghaar and his six rangers followed Xan and Sheba through the woods. Soon another flickering flame was visible, along with the sounds of a bubbling brook. Waiting there was a group of children, some teenagers, others younger, along with a man Roghaar recognized.
“Charley?” he said.
Charley stepped over and clasped his hand. “Roghaar; I’m glad to see you on board.”
He proceeded to tell the rangers about the duke’s underground slave trade and what had transpired earlier that day. Roghaar and the others were outraged, swearing once again to back Xan in his freedom fight.
Then Roghaar noticed Honbria standing amongst the group. He smiled at her, and she curtsied, just like old times. Then he quickly looked away, thinking again of Vida. There was something he could do for Honbria though—once the armory was secured.
Gathering around the campfire, they laid plans. Charley and the children would slip in closer to the city and wait near the armory while Xan, Sheba, and the rangers would infiltrate the armory as the city slept.
They extinguished the fire, and the two groups parted, each wishing the other well.
Two guards with spears stood at the gate of the armory and two more with crossbows were posted on a platform at the top of a wall eight cubits high. There was a bell mounted there, to summon more guards in case of attack. The gate below was bolted from the inside and swung inward, barring unauthorized entry.
Concealed from view on one side of the armory, Xan leaned over to Sheba. “Are you sure you can jump to the top of the wall?”
With a sidelong glance, she assured him she could—that in fact, she could clear the height of two men with ease. Satisfied, he left the cat hidden and fanned around the armory perimeter with Roghaar and his rangers.
For several minutes they waited in silence, ever mindful of the roving guards. Once Sheba gained entry and afforded them the same, they’d swarm in from the side.
When the time was right Sheba surged out of hiding. Racing toward the lower guards, she gathered herself and sprang over their heads to clear the wall and into the upper guards. She caught them completely unaware and took them out before they could move or speak. Then she crouched low, on full alert.
Below, wondering what they’d just seen, the lower guards were just raising their spears when Xan and the rangers hit them from the side. Their plan so far had played out flawlessly, transpiring in mere seconds, in near silence.
Running with the rope, Sven wound up mightily and hurled the coiled length upwards. Unwinding as it went, the rope cleared the wall and Sheba pounced. Clutching the rope in her jaws, she leaped down inside the gate and braced herself on powerful paws.
With Sven holding his end securely, Roghaar grasped the taut rope and quickly ascended, dropping out of sight for a moment. He reappeared with a wave of triumph then moved out of sight, bound for the gate below.
Xan gave a soft warbling whistle that sounded much like an owl. This was a signal for Charley, who materialized from the shadows presently with the children. They gathered beside Xan and the rangers, eyes fixed on the bolted gate.
A few of the younger children began talking; they’d seen Sheba leap over the wall and were excited and amazed. Hon quickly shushed them, exchanging a look with Xan. The look conveyed that she’d been shushing them non-stop since Sheba’s leap. He grinned at her, pressing a finger to his lips. Keep up the good work, the gesture said.
At last, a resounding clap sounded—the inside bolt being thrown; then the gate swung wide. Roghaar and Sven motioned with their arms, and the group surged forward, through the gate and into the armory. Sheba moved into view and padded alongside the children, allowing them to stroke her back as they walked, to help keep them all quiet.
“She’s amazing,” Hon whispered.
“Indeed,” Xan said with a nod.
Several guards lay sprawled and unconscious in the courtyard, and quickly the group moved past. Two rangers held back, to secure the gate and restrain the guards on Roghaar’s signal. Charley followed Sheba’s lead with the children, to a safe and concealed area.
Xan, Roghaar, and the other four rangers moved to the door of the guard station, taking up position and preparing for the breach. When Sheba joined them, the children now hidden and secure, they rushed inside.
Ten guards were lounging there, half of them asleep, with the others playing cards and drinking. Roghaar and each of his four rangers took the sleeping guards quickly into custody, kicking their weapons into the far corner. Xan and Sheba handled the others, toppling the table and spilling money, cards, and sloshing brew across the floor.
Xan’s staff was a blur, as were Sheba’s claws, and in no time all ten guards were marched out of the station and secured in another, windowless room.
The team scouted the entire armory, flushing out several small groups of guards who were easily defeated and locked in the windowless room with the others.
The operation took roughly half an hour, and the remainder of that hour was spent gathering weapons for immediate use and to distribute to those they’d soon free from the prison. They discovered as well, a supply of grappling hooks which they added to the stash.
Roghaar was left in charge of the armory with four of the rangers and the children, aside from Hon. She and Charley were to accompany Xan, Sheba, and the other two rangers to the prison.
The children kicked up a fuss at first, fearful of being left once again in the hands of strangers. They knew Charley by this time and trusted him; Roghaar and his rangers, however, were intimidating and another thing altogether.
Hon and Charley sat the children down, assuring them that Roghaar and his rangers were honorable men who would protect and care for them. Charley vouched for Roghaar personally, which helped, but what finally settled them all was Sheba.
The great cat strolled down the rank of rangers, butting her head against each man’s thigh—a sign of her endorsement. Then she walked over to the children and sat down in their midst, letting her wise gaze rove over them all.
Xan watched approvingly, as Hon stepped to his side. He’d done all he could to limit enemy casualties here, aware that some of the guards were surely good men who would support freedom if given the chance. He needed to talk to them all, with his staff, but there wasn’t time for that now.
They needed to storm the prison immediately, free the political prisoners and get them all back here as soon as possible. It would be an entirely different situation at the prison since most of the guards there were evil men who abused the prisoners and seemed to relish torture and death.
Charley spoke up, warning that the warden was the worst. Hon backed that claim, recalling her brief encounter with him and the malevolent vibe he cast. All agreed to stay on alert and see that the warden was swiftly dealt with.
© Copyright 2017-2023 Gene Van Shaar