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 26—Big Battle
Back at the armory, Sergio called another mandatory meeting in the courtyard. After briefing the crowd on what transpired in the meadow, he deferred to Xan.
“There has already been much fighting and death, but to this point, no one on our side has died. Tomorrow we will defeat the duke once and for all, but sadly not everyone will survive. Because of men like him, only those who are willing to fight and die for freedom will have it. If you lack the courage to fight tomorrow, depart the armory now.”
No one moved, but murmurs circulated through the throng.
“Remember, battles are won by being courageous and using wise tactics. Xan raised his staff as cheering arose all around.
Early the next morning Xan, Sergio, and Roghaar dispatched a squad of crossbowmen and archers, to locate Duke Grudo’s advancing troops and then strike. After a brief volley, they were to retreat a distance, then find cover and wait.
Inevitably the duke’s army would advance; then they’d rain down another volley and repeat the process, drawing the army ever closer to the armory. There they’d have the high ground, with the rest of their force in place.
They set out, with encouraging shouts and cheers ringing through the air. Once the team was out of sight, every ranger gathered, preparing for the moment their opposition moved into view.
Just over an hour passed, when the squad returned, shy two men who’d fallen. Over a hundred of the duke’s men had been eliminated by the time the defensive squad made their final dash back to the armory.
Over a hundred bowmen manned the armory walls and rained down arrows and bolts on the arriving soldiers, reducing the duke’s forces to about 700. Grudo’s gray-clad soldiers propped ladders and tossed ropes over the walls, moving with quick efficiency.
The bell sounded, the rebels who were hidden on rooftops, across the street, behind the attackers begin firing, and another hundred men went down.
When the attackers caught in the crossfire begin to panic, the bell sounded again and groups of rebels ran into position on each side attacking the flanks with spears and swords. Having greater numbers, the attackers turned to rush at the rebels.
Before attackers realized what happened Xan, Sheba, and about two hundred fighters surged out of the gate and hit them from the rear. Sheba was like whirling blades in their midst while Xan struck over and over with both ends of his staff.
Every rebel fought with valor, some with more skill than others. Grudo’s men tried to retreat but they were boxed in. When their number was down to about 300 they begin dropping their weapons and kneeling on the ground. The bell sounded twice, the freedom fighters stepped back calling for surrender, and the last of the duke’s men threw down their weapons.
The following day Xan sent a team of rangers to scout the domain of Duke Artorius, who ruled the city of Sagal. According to Sergio, Artorius would prove to be an invaluable ally in dethroning King Zortiger.
Xan, Sheba, and Roghaar headed into Merker with two ranger teams. Duke Grudo had gathered his guards and riches and tried to sneak away during the night, but previously posted rangers had prevented it. According to the latest report, he was holed up in his estate house, biding his time.
Xan had also learned from the ranger’s report that Duke Grudo intended to inform the king what was transpiring in Merker and that he needed reinforcements to quash the rebellion, which was much better organized than he’d first supposed.
Hoping to buy time, Grudo intended to schedule a formal meeting with Xan in two weeks. In the meantime, he planned to send some men to Cavalon to inform the king of the situation in Merker. He was certain King Zortiger would respond at once, and two weeks would be plenty of time for the king’s forces to mobilize and arrive.
Xan, Sheba, and the rangers arrived at the gates to find a guard with a message waiting. “The duke would like to meet with you formally, here at his estate, in two weeks. Do you accept?”
“We do not,” Xan said firmly.
One of the duke’s guards turned back toward the house.
“Open the gates or we’ll bash them down,” Roghaar shouted.
“I’m under orders not to admit you, but rest assured I’ll relay your reply.”
“Charge,” Roghaar bellowed.
The rangers rushed forward. The gate was sturdy but nothing like the armory gate, and the charging men broke through. Sheba sprang out in front of the men with Xan and Roghaar bringing up the rear. The remaining guard drew his sword, but Xan swung the staff with a whirl, leaving him unconscious on the ground.
Arrows from the line of guards on the wrap-around balcony bounced off Sheba’s armor as she advanced, giving the rangers in her wake time to fire back, and in no time the porch was clear.
Roghaar broke the front door down with three solid kicks, and they swarmed inside. Guards were waiting there as well, but they’d expected as much, and quickly disarmed and restrained them.
Xan approached the commander, who was groaning because of a leg wound and leaning against a wall. “Where is Duke Grudo?”
“He departed last night for Cavalon to unite with King Zortiger’s army. All of you will die, and your rebellion will be crushed.”
The staff remained cold in Xan’s hand.
“No one left these premises since the duke attempted a double cross in the armory meadow. Where, in this house, is he hiding?”
“I told you,” the commander insisted. “He is halfway to Cavalon by now. You should pull back and run for the hills, while you still can.”
The staff remained cold. “Are there hidden rooms on the lower level?”
The commander hesitated then said quickly, “Hidden rooms? No, of course not. Why would the duke need hidden rooms?”
Xan sighed, turning away with his staff still being cold. “You are a liar and a poor one at that.”
Sheba paced the room and adjoining hallway, sniffing and twitching her ears. Presently she stopped at the end of the hall to paw at one corner. Xan joined her, to find a hidden trapdoor under the rug. With her claws, Sheba pried it open.
Crossbow bolts ricocheted off her armor as she jumped down. Xan and Roghaar exchanged smiles as screams and snarls erupted from below. Xan motioned for Roghaar to follow him and descended the stairs, leaving the rangers on guard above.
A basement of corridors and rooms awaited, and without delay, they searched each one. Most of the rooms were empty, but one of them was locked. Roghaar kicked it, and they entered.
It was lavishly decorated and furnished but empty, with one closed door on the far wall. Sheba snarled and rushed forward, breaking through, followed by Roghaar.
“This is it,” he said, drawing his sword.
Xan nodded in agreement.
There were three women beyond, bruised and chained to platforms. Huddled in fear, they stared up through tear-streaked eyes. Righteous fury rose in Xan, and he met Roghaar’s like gaze.
“I had no idea of this place when I was commissioned here,” Roghaar said.
Xan eyed the chains. “How are we going to free them?”
“The duke surely has a key.”
One of the women pointed to the far corner where a partition stood. “He’s over there, with three of his guards.”
She was the youngest of the three, around Hon’s age, with dark shoulder-length hair frizzled about her face, and one of her eyes was blackened.
“Vida?” Roghaar breathed.
She sank to the floor and buried her face in her hands.
“You know her?” Xan asked.
Roghaar nodded. “She’s a friend of Honbria’s.”
Then to Vida he said, “I’m sorry we sent you back here when we caught you fleeing the city. I wanted to let you go, but…”
A panicked voice interrupted: “No, no, get away from me you beast.”
Both men strode across the room and knocked the partition aside. Cowering there, with Sheba snarling in his face, was Duke Grudo. His last three guards were there as well with raised swords.
Xan and Roghaar started fighting them, as the duke edged around the fray, thinking he’d escape. As he bolted past the chained women, Vida stuck out her foot and tripped him. As he sprawled on the floor Sheba pounced, sinking her fangs deep into his neck.
Once the duke stilled and Sheba backed away from his corpse, the guards tossed their swords aside and raised their hands in surrender. They all began babbling at once, claiming they didn’t condone what transpired down here, but they’d been under orders.
The staff in Xan’s hand was slightly warm, meaning that at least one of them was lying and at least one was telling the truth. Later he’d talk to them each individually, but for now, he sent them upstairs to join the other captive guards, escorted by Roghaar.
Xan crouched beside Duke Grudo and sifted through his robes. A ring of keys was tucked deep in one of them, and moments later the women were free.
As Xan set them free Vida said, “We have been praying for rescue or death but we were losing hope.”
“Your prayers have been answered. Come with me; I’ll get all of you to safety,” Xan said.
None of them moved, eyeing Sheba warily.
“She won’t hurt you, come on,” he coaxed.
“Where are you taking us? I’d rather just leave on my own,” Vida said.
“It isn’t safe yet, and you need medical attention. We’ll take you to the armory, where our base of operation is,” Xan said gently.
The two other women stepped forward, but Vida stepped back, edging to one side. “No; I don’t want to go there. Just set me free.”
“Honbria is at the armory,” Roghaar said, re-entering the room. “I’m sure she’d like to see you.”
“Hon?” Tears brimmed anew in Vida’s eyes.
Roghaar nodded. “Yes, and I can’t guarantee it, since I’m not sure who they are, but your parents may be there as well. Lots of people from the city have joined us at the armory.”
Vida nodded, still unsmiling but with hope alight in her eyes.
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