Lords of Freedom is an exciting n ew 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 25—Assassination
On his way to the conference room the next morning, to question and test a large group, Xan saw Hon coming out of the kitchen. Together they walked along, and on a whim, he asked if she’d like to join him for the session.
“Could I?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“Of course; after you.” He pulled the door open and ushered her in.
After pulling a second chair over, next to his they sat down, waiting for the first participant. She fidgeted a bit, eyeing the staff, and at last, asked him how it worked.
“If the person is truthful, the staff grows warm in my hand. If they lie it goes cold. Beyond that, I really don’t know. It was given to me as part of my initial training, and it never fails.”
She reached out and touched it. “It fights very well too.”
He chuckled. “That part I had to practice and learn. I’d never carried or used a staff before, and for a time I didn’t think I’d ever master it. Now though, in battle, it’s like part of me.”
“It looks that way when you fight.”
After a pause, he asked, “Would you like me to train you in combat?”
Her eyes twinkled. “Yes; I’d like that very much.”
Just then the door opened, and the first session began. As the people filed in and out, Xan made notes on a ready parchment. Those who passed the test of truth were told to say, I am now your comrade in arms to the ranger Sven, stationed outside the door. If they failed, Xan merely dismissed them and Sven escorted them out of the armory.
Hon marveled as time went on. Some of the people who didn’t pass would have fooled her, and she could see the wisdom and value behind the staff. The last few people—two men and two women were given an entirely different phrase to tell Sven: I swear always to follow orders.
“What does that mean?” Hon asked as Xan began tidying up, finished for the day.
“Those four were Duke Grudo’s spies, intending to pass word back to him about our plans and progress.”
She gasped. “You let them go though—why?”
“The phrase they said to Sven tells him what I just told you. He’ll take them to a holding area and lock them up until the coming battle is won.”
“I see,” she mused. “That’s quite clever; they’ll never know until it’s too late. What happens to them after the battle?”
“Actually, your father will decide; he’ll be the one in charge of Merker by that time.”
Since Hon was already proficient in archery, Xan introduced her to the basics of swordplay, each evening just before supper, through the rest of the week. They used a wooden sword initially since it was easy to handle. Hon would never be an expert with a great sword, given her size and strength, but a short sword was something she could master, he promised her.
In the hours they spent together practicing they talked in depth about her family, as well as his parents. She didn’t remember his mother at all, but she’d known Ravi fairly well, tagging along when he and Cheston visited the blacksmith shop. Sometimes Ravi saved curled metal shavings in a bottle for her, she remembered. Adding pretty rocks and fine-colored sand, she’d place the bottles on tables and shelves throughout the house.
Her memories charmed Xan, imagining her delight at the bottles and care of them as a child. Once again he realized how much she’d matured. To him, she was no longer a girl but fast becoming the woman he loved.
Without going into too much detail on the lords, he told her about his home in The Heart of Freedom, as well as how beautiful the city was. She was spellbound, telling him she’d love to visit there one day. The thought gave him pause. Could I, he wondered, take her there?
They also talked about their love of freedom, and their confusion as to why so often men ruled in tyranny. Further: how could a free and prosperous people surrender their liberty, bit by bit? It was the promise of sustenance without labor and safety with the hidden cost of independence. This, Xan explained, was what everyone in the armory needed to know and guard against.
One morning, as Xan and the rangers prepared for the day, a messenger from the duke approached the armory gate. Roghaar strode out to meet him and returned with word that a meeting was requested, to discuss the current situation and negotiate a compromise.
Xan and the others knew, from their own agents, that the duke was frustrated that his spies were not reporting back—that once they entered the armory they never returned. He suspected they’d defected or been pegged as moles and killed. The truth was, they had been pegged but were alive and locked away like the four Hon had seen.
Xan conferred with Sergio and they sent Roghaar back to the gate with their response: they would meet the duke but only on certain conditions. By no means would they meet him at his estate, the courthouse, or anywhere else in the city. The meeting would have to take place within the armory or in a nearby meadow if he preferred. Also, Duke Grudo would have to come in person, with no more than forty guards.
Roghaar rejoined them, saying that the duke’s messenger had departed and would return with a final reply. He was back within the hour, with word that the duke would arrive at the field at high noon, accompanied by the agreed forty guards.
At once a squad of rangers was dispatched, to wait, concealed in key locations, and watch for any bowmen of the duke’s sneaking about. As the appointed time drew nigh, they spotted a dozen men, armed with bows and approaching with stealth. The rangers watched as they positioned themselves to take Xan and Sergio out—Sheba too, they supposed.
Sven led the rebuke to this plan, slipping up on each bowman and quietly disposing of them. That done, seeing dust clouds in the distance, the rangers returned quickly to the armory to report.
Xan, Sergio, Roghaar, and Charley were making final preparations when the squad arrived. After hearing what transpired, all were angry, though not surprised.
“Treachery already, before a meeting of good faith,” Sergio sighed, shaking his head.
“There’s sure to be more where that came from,” Xan said. “We’ll be on our guard though, with one squad of rangers plus Sheba.”
“Let’s go,” Roghaar said, adjusting his sword.
“They’ll be shocked, with their forty, when we show up with a force of twelve,” Charley added, reaching for the door.
He held it open for the others, nodding at each, including the rangers as they passed. Charley fell in behind the last man, letting the door slam in his wake.
The duke was mounted on a spirited white stallion, with his guards marching around him. As well there was a wagon, pulled by a team of horses with two goats tethered behind. The horses whinnied nervously and danced about, while the goats bleated and tugged at their ropes, nervous with Sheba on the scene. The cat ignored them, staring hard at the duke and curling her lip.
Fighting his horse with the reins, Duke Grudo’s gaze fastened on Roghaar. “I would never have thought you’d turn traitor. I trusted you and promoted you up the ranks. Do you not realize that after an honorable tour as armory patrol leader, you would have become one of my personal guards—the highest rank possible for a military man?”
Roghaar squared his shoulders. “There is no honor in bowing to tyrants, only shame.”
“There is even less honor in trampling underfoot the oaths you took.”
“I trampled those oaths each time I stripped away the peoples’ liberty, carrying out your orders.”
The duke’s face reddened and he dismounted and then strode to the middle of the meadow. He kept his gaze locked with Sheba’s the entire way.
He didn’t believe I was real until now, Sheba told Xan. He is indeed an evil man; worse even, than the prison warden.
“What do you hope to accomplish with this foolish rebellion?” Duke Grudo demanded.
Xan spoke loudly to ensure all the soldiers heard. “We expect to gain freedom and justice for the citizens of Merker.”
Duke Grudo tilted his head. “Do I know you, son?”
Xan’s hands balled into fists, but he kept his voice even. “You dare to call me that? I should kill you now…it wouldn’t be hard.”
The duke flinched; then vague recognition lit his eye. “You’re the blacksmith Ravi’s whelp. You’ve made a grave mistake boy, coming back.”
Xan took a step, but Sheba pressed against his leg, staying him. He is baiting you. Rein your anger in. There will be a time and a place for justice, but it isn’t here and now.
“Right,” he said under his breath, nudging her softly in thanks.
“Be warned,” Xan said, loudly again. “This is your last chance to surrender before many lives are lost, including your own.”
“Surely you jest,” the duke scoffed. “Come now, let’s put this unpleasantness aside, for Merker’s sake.”
Roghaar and Charley sighed audibly, and Xan imagined their rolling eyes.
The duke clapped his hands, ignoring them. “Set up the tables and unload the food.”
Several guards set to work, unloading a table and chairs from the wagon. Others carried out containers of food and wine, making the meadow a banquet hall. Unimpressed, Xan and the others watched, not taking a single step.
To their surprise, as the duke sat down, two guards untied the goats meant for Sheba, led them forward, and promptly slaughtered them. She was surprised by this but made no move to approach.
I do not eat like a domestic beast; I hunt and kill my own food. Do they not realize I can smell the poison sprinkled on those goats that would very quickly kill me? An audible growl rumbled in her throat.
Xan nodded his acknowledgment.
“Come, come; join me in a toast, all of you. Surely there’s a way to work out our differences.” Duke Grudo raised a glass to his lips.
He swallowed slowly, looking smug. Then, as the seconds ticked by, he sprang from the table and retreated behind his guards. Scanning the area, he muttered under his breath.
“No archers?” Roghaar said mockingly, shading his eyes theatrically.
“Wherever can they be?” Charley asked in a like tone. “You gave the signal, so by now there should be arrows flying.”
“They’re all dead where they crouched, in violation of our terms,” Roghaar said.
“Damn you all,” Duke Grudo bellowed. “Strike now, men; wipe them out.”
His guards sprang to action with murder in their eyes. Xan and Sheba shifted in front of Sergio and started their deadly dance as Roghaar and Charley joined ranks with the other rangers. Together, they easily defeated the charging guards.
The duke mounted his stallion and galloped off, quickly followed by half of his terrified men. The others lay mauled and mangled, atop the ruined feast and the poisoned goats.
“I think,” Sergio panted, gazing after the duke. “He’ll strike again soon, in an all-out assault on the armory.”
© Copyright 2017-2023 Gene Van Shaar