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 29—Artorius
Xan’s day of departure soon arrived, and the citizens gathered in the square to see him and his company off. He and Sheba, along with a patrol of rangers stood before the crowd as Sergio gave a brief speech, and Xan promised to return, once his mission was complete.
Hon stood beside her mother with Vida nearby with her parents. The two young women had talked at length over the past few days, about the nightmare Vida had lived the past months and how she planned to cope with it.
One thing was sure: Vida was leaving Merker, one way or the other. She couldn’t bear to remain in the city, even though Duke Grudo was dead; there were just too many bad memories for her to move on. Perhaps one day she’d return, but for now, she simply had to get out.
It was Xan who first proposed having Vida accompany them, and both women leapt at the idea. Vida wouldn’t be facing the world alone, and although she would be heading into danger, she’d receive self-defense training and be well-protected in the meantime. Best of all, the girls would be together. Hon wouldn’t be the only female in the group, and Vida would have plenty of moral support as she healed.
Five days of travel brought them to a prearranged rendezvous with a second team of rangers—those sent to scout Sagal following the victorious armory battle. They reported that Sagal was three times the size of Merker, with an army of over four thousand.
From what they gathered, Duke Artorius was revered as a great warrior who had never been defeated in battle and who personally led his army. It was a generally accepted fact in Sagal that Artorius respected the property and labor of his people, which contributed to the city’s prosperity.
Perhaps most interesting: Artorius was reluctant to implement King Zortiger’s more onerous restrictions and demands. He toed the line, but only as far as necessary, to avoid being deemed a rebel.
Two rangers were sent ahead to request an audience with Duke Artorius, as official emissaries from Merker. By now it was certain that word of Duke Grudo’s ousting and the new government in Merker had circulated throughout the kingdom. Two more rangers were assigned to secretly scout and observe; then remain ready to assist if hostilities arose. The rest of the company traveled openly through the city toward Artorius’ estate.
It was not long before citizens lined the streets, curious about the group of strangers and the great black cat with them. By and large, they were friendly, asking questions and offering bits of trivia related to Sagal. It was quickly evident that the majority were happy and proud of their city; not only that, they weren’t at all wary of visitors. It was reminiscent of Thalick on the one hand yet different in that Thalick was a tourist spot while Sagal stood confident in defensive strength.
Before long the ranger emissaries rejoined the group with word that Artorius would meet them at the grand stadium in the heart of the city. Not only that, a company of guards stood by, to act as a formal escort.
The stadium was a marvel, constructed of sheer granite walls that curved inward slightly at their peak. Banners were visible as well, mounted on towering poles within the walls, rippling in the breeze. A grand arch offered entrance to the stadium, and Xan was reminded at once of the Hall Of Truth arena, where he’d trained with Jartan and Sekhmet.
Artorius stood in a pavilion just off the arena field, where a long table was set, with servers laying out a fine meal. He was a tall broad-shouldered man with wavy ash blond hair and piercing green eyes under bushy brows. Clad in fine leather, he awaited them with folded arms, scrutinizing each as they passed under the archway.
His brow twitched at the sight of Sheba, but other than that he moved not a muscle. When Xan veered toward him, he unfolded his arms and inclined his head.
“I am Xan, and this is Sheba. The rest of my company can be introduced presently, but I stand before you now to solicit your support in our fight to liberate the realm of Cavalon.”
“Word of your quest has spread far and wide,” Artorius said. “Defeating the pirates in Thalick and putting an end to the slave trade there is admirable, not to mention impressive, but to unseat Duke Grudo in Merker? That, I thought was overstated, yet I learned the day before last, from a trusted source, that Merker is now ruled by a governor, with new articles and laws.”
“That is true and the governor, Sergio, is a man I’ve known my whole life—a second father, you might say,” Xan said solemnly. “Merker is my homeland, and Duke Grudo was a tyrant—the man responsible for my own father’s death. I know that Sagal sought freedom from King Zortiger’s rule years ago, only to be crushed into submission once again.”
Artorius’ face darkened and he nodded in stony silence.
“There was no need for that,” Xan continued. “My closest friend, a mere lad at the time, by the name of Cheston perished in that battle.” He choked out the final word.
“Indeed,” Artorius said. “Many died needlessly that day.”
Xan ushered Hon to his side. “This is Honbria, Cheston’s younger sister and Sergio’s daughter.”
Hon met Artorius’ gaze and then briefly bowed her head. A curtsy didn’t seem appropriate.
Artorius nodded. “I will hear you out, Xan, over the meal now being served.”
All moved to the table and were seated, with Artorius at the head, his first lieutenant on his right side, Xan on his left, and Hon and Vida in turn beside him. The rest of the rangers filled in the remaining seats and Sheba stationed herself behind Xan’s chair.
The meal was comprised of bread, beans, and meat along with a wide assortment of fruit. As they ate and got acquainted Xan outlined his plan in broad terms: to join the might of Sagal with Merker’s forces to challenge King Zortiger for the crown of Cavalon.
Artorius was intrigued but at the same time skeptical. The king had thousands of well-trained and loyal soldiers, and he’d learned firsthand how brutal Zortiger could be. A few years back it had been the mere notion of an uprising that sparked his wrath. Now, with Merker in open rebellion, not to mention Thalick’s antics, he’d be all the more incensed.
Xan pointed out Sheba, for one thing, and for another the number of Merker soldiers. Also, there would be many who yearned for freedom deep down and would abandon Zortiger to join them.
“I didn’t know Merker had so great an army,” Artorius mused. “Your plan is sound, though I haven’t heard specific details yet, and Sheba is most impressive. I’d not like to face her on the battlefield but having her fight with me—that I would enjoy.”
A large crowd of soldiers and citizens were gathering to observe, filing into the surrounding stands. Vida leaned over, whispering something to Hon, as the rangers began murmuring amongst themselves. Sheba, sitting behind Xan’s chair, ever alert and watchful, stood up and tested the breeze.
Xan noticed the concealed rangers moving into position. He was uncertain what was going on and waved them back, doing it in a manner that looked like he was gesturing at the stands as he asked, “Why is such a crowd gathering, Artorius?”
“It is customary in Sagal for potential allies to prove themselves in mock combat. Send your two most skilled warriors onto the field to meet my two finest. Blunted weapons will be provided.”
All eyes turned to the field, where two Sagal warriors stood at the ready. At their feet were two shields and two blunted swords.
Xan looked over at Sheba with a casual grin. “All right, but we’ll have no use of shields or swords.”
A look of distress came over Artorius, when Xan stood from the table, took up his staff, and marched onto the field with Sheba. The waiting warriors shifted uneasily, and gasps rang out from the crowd.
“Sheba will not bite,” he called loudly. “Nor will she use her claws in this contest. I do not need a shield or sword. I invite eight more Sagal warriors to join these two against us. Is that agreeable?”
The crowd roared approval, and Artorius motioned his lieutenant who hurried off across the field. Then the duke stood from his seat, and at once the crowd fell silent.
“Ten of Sagal’s best warriors could easily defeat more than their number. How do you hope to prevail?”
As the eight additional men took the field, with shields and blunted swords Xan called back, “You will soon see.”
“He’s crazy,” Vida whispered to Hon.
“Don’t worry,” Hon assured her. “Xan knows what he’s doing. He and Sheba have practiced this kind of battle many times during their training. He told me all about that.”
“If Sheba can’t bite or claw though…” Vida said.
“Xan doesn’t want anyone killed, but a solid cuff from Sheba will knock any man out there senseless,” Hon interjected. “They have shields but no helmets, although I’m not sure that would even matter.”
Vida sighed heavily, but her eyes were bright, focused on the field. The surrounding rangers leaned forward as well, whooping encouragement to Xan and Sheba. Hon drew a deep breath, hoping she was right.
From the stadium balcony, a horn sounded, and the mock battle began. Artorius remained standing, increasingly amazed as Xan and Sheba seemed to dance through their opposition.
One after the next of the Sagal warriors fell, some at a blow from Xan’s staff, others from swipes of Sheba’s paws.
The crowd cheered wildly at first, but then gasps and moans filled the air. Artorius began pacing the length of the table, shouting at his men but to no avail.
The rangers exchanged smug looks but refrained from cheering aloud, thinking it unwise to further provoke the duke and his city. Vida and Hon oohed and aahed and clapped their hands.
In less than two minutes the stadium was silent, with Hon and Vida taking their cue to cease further claps and cheers. All ten Sagal warriors were down, with none seriously injured, as promised.
Artorius stepped forward, onto the field. “Most impressive, I must say. I now challenge you, Xan without Sheba—your staff against my blunted sword and shield.”
Xan stooped to retrieve a shield and sword from the ground, of those meant for his warriors then walked to the center of the field and extended both to Artorius. “Challenge accepted.”
Sheba rubbed against Xan as she passed then broke into an easy lope off the field and back to the pavilion. Positioning herself between Hon and Vida the cat let out a thundering roar which marked the contest start, in lieu of the blasting horn.
Artorius scowled, giving his head a quick shake as he raised his shield. Xan, meanwhile, suppressed a grin and readied himself for the duke’s first move.
Artorius was taller than most men, with heavily muscled arms and legs, clad in armor of dull back metal and hardened leather. He moved in swiftly, surprising Xan with his speed and grace—by far the most skilled opponent Xan had ever faced.
With one exception, Xan thought, parrying skillfully with his staff.
Artorius’ attack began with footwork so smooth and fast that he seemed to fly. Lighting strikes with the sword flowed high and low, side to side. Wherever Xan struck with the staff, Artorius had his shield there to block. As they ranged round and round, Xan remained on the defensive, reminded of his only superior opponent, Jartan.
Stepping back at one point, Xan softly said, “You are the best fighter I have ever faced, save one: my teacher. In the next minute, I will land a blow on each of your arms and legs. I will then make a request.”
Artorius smiled and said between pants, “We shall see.”
He intensified his attack, but the skill and power of Xan’s Bō transcended everything he had to offer. Within a minute Xan had landed the four predicted blows.
He smiled and drew back. “My request is that we end this match now and speak privately about our possible alliance.”
In awe and respect, Artorius lowered his sword. Xan could easily have drawn the contest out to the bitter end and publicly defeated him. Instead, even though it was obvious to the two of them who would ultimately prevail, it seemed to be a draw. At least that was how it appeared to the gathered crowd.
Lifting Xan’s arm, he declared, “I salute the greatest warrior I have ever faced. We will now retire to my estate.”
Once again, the stadium erupted in shouts and cheers. The rangers leaped to their feet and surged onto the field with Sheba. Hon and Vida stood as well but remained in the pavilion as they once again clapped and cheered.
Xan and the others left the stadium with Artorius, bound for the duke’s estate. All of them marveled at the city’s buildings, resources, and organization as they made their way through Sagal. The city was clean, with wide roads laid out in squares, lined with shops of every kind. There was a large grassy area too with a pond where children sailed toy ships, their parents watching from nearby benches, chatting together, or eating lunch.
A tall iron fence bordered the duke’s estate with the manor visible at the end of a long tree-lined drive. There were barracks behind the manor for the rangers, which were well-maintained and quite modern.
Hon and Vida were content to share quarters inside the manor, and Xan was provided with a private suite. Artorius worried a bit about Sheba prowling the halls, but Xan quickly assured him that she would be most content outside in the surrounding forest.
The two talked for hours that night and much more the next day with various rangers joining the discussions, as their specialties in strategy and battle came into play.
Hon and Vida helped Xan explain what had happened in Merker since they had lived through it. Bit by bit the people had surrendered their liberty until one day they found themselves under tyranny, with no way to escape.
Hon described her work as a court scribe, outlining the unfair outcome of so many trials. She went on to tell Artorius of the weapons confiscation and how her father had set up a secret weapon stash along with his idea of the co-op and Grudo’s opposition to that.
“Your father, Sergio sounds like a clever and honorable man,” Artorius told her. “He seems a fit choice to rule Merker in Grudo’s stead; I hope to meet him one day.”
“I hope the same,” Hon said. “You are the kind of man he’d have sought out through the dark times, had you been in Merker.”
Vida gave an overview of her experience as an aide to visiting diplomats. At first, she’d enjoyed it, meeting new and important people from faraway lands, but that didn’t last long. Soon she was assigned exclusively to male dignitaries and expected to serve them in any way they saw fit.
She objected of course, but once she had seen the underbelly of Merker politics, willing or not, she was bound in her station…a virtual slave.
Time passed; then one man, a foreign prince, frightened her so with his lust and violence, she scratched his cheek with her nails and drew blood. She was privately sentenced to death for the offense, to appease the foreign king and locked away to await her fate.
The cell was located in the basement of Grudo’s mansion, and he visited her that night, offering to spare her life. The price for such a favor was for her to serve as his plaything.
Atoruus was shocked by what he had heard, “You mean to tell me Grudo brazenly abused his citizens and even forbade them to come and go freely from the city?”
“People were jailed for attempting to leave if they didn’t have money to pay a big fine,” Hon said with a nod.
“I’m very sorry for your suffering,” Artorius said to Vida, reaching to take her hand. “Behavior like that is beyond disgusting for any civilized man. Grudo seems worse even than Zortiger. If I had any doubts about the Merker rebellion, they are utterly quelled now.”
Xan breathed an inner sigh of relief. He’d wondered how one duke would take the downfall of another when it came right down to it. The time had come though, to bring things to a conclusion.
“King Zortiger has little respect for freedom and many similarities to Grudo which means we will have to fight him and his armies for our freedom. The question is: will you be fighting with us or against us, Artorius?”
“I have been expecting the day to come when I would have to fight the king to defend my people. Part of the reason I requested the contest in the stadium was to see if you would make a strong ally. You and Sheba have impressed me beyond measure in both skill and character.
“Now, instead of having another enemy in Merker with Grudo as duke, I have new and powerful partners on the path to freedom.
© Copyright 2017-2023 Gene Van Shaar
Gene Van Shaar is a master teacher whose lessons and stories have generated both laughter and tears. He has written many articles and books, some of which can be found here.