Lords of Freedom 3

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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 3—Honbria 1

Galloping across the meadow, Honbria relished the wind whipping through her hair, the long grass parting before Dawn’s pounding hooves, and the invincible feeling the ride inspired. At the tree line, she slowed the horse to a canter and straightened in her saddle. The path into the forest was wide, but at the first bend it narrowed considerably, and Dawn slowed on her own—to a trot and then a walk. Honbria stroked her neck, and the horse nickered softly.

“Would you look at that?” Honbria mused, seeing Duke Grudo’s canal up ahead, with only a trickle of water dribbling along. “Castor and his crew have been hard at work.”

Moving along the trail, they soon reached a large pond, complete with a dam of packed mud and sticks. Castor, the one beaver Hon had named, had done a fine job with his crew. Now they were all likely sleeping, being nocturnal creatures, and the respite was indeed well deserved.

Hon dismounted and walked closer to the pond. She was sixteen years old, tall and willowy with long blond hair and blue eyes, sharp as an eagle’s. Her bow and some arrows were lashed to Dawn’s saddle, and if a deer ventured along she’d return home with good news.

Dropping to one knee, she cupped her hands and drew some cold clear water to her lips and then splashed some over her cheeks, like she had done so many times on hot summer afternoons through the years, at this very spot.

Years ago, she’d tailed her older brother Cheston and his best friend Juel through these woods often, watching them dam the river time and again to create a swimming pond. Their work though was no match for the relentless current of the river, so blocking the river became part of the fun.

Had the beavers come here, back in the day, and dammed the river so proficiently, Cheston and Juel would have been ecstatic. She grinned, imagining their hoots and hollers as they stripped off their shirts and shoes and waded in. How Castor and his crew would have felt about that was another story.

Sometimes, on those long-ago jaunts, the boys would catch her tailing them, but most times she remained undetected, expert even then in the art of stealth. Whenever they did catch her, it was because she got sloppy—distracted by her infatuation with Juel.

He was tall with a lean, wiry build, sandy hair, and light brown eyes. The eyes were what did it; she’d loved to look at his eyes, even if he wasn’t looking at her. They were brooding and deep, full of kindness and brimming with intellect. Even when those eyes sparked with mischief or humor, there remained a calm and solemn tone.

Blowing out a breath, she swept her hair back over her shoulder and stood. Juel had hardly known she existed back then, she was so much younger than he, yet he’d always been nice, tugging one of her pigtails or ruffling her hair in passing, helping her latch a heavy gate or lifting her high enough to pluck an apple from one of the orchard trees.

Considering that he’d been gone for four years, she sighed heavily. Was he even alive, somewhere out in the world on his own? He’d been sixteen when he fled Merker, the age she was now, the same age her brother Cheston had been, the last time she saw him.

Her throat constricted. Cheston had been gone as long as Juel, forced to join the king’s army and killed in a needless skirmish near the city of Sagal. If King Zortiger had negotiated rather than responding with an iron fist, there’d have been no bloodshed.

Artorius, the duke over Sagal had advised the king to diffuse the tension by easing the tax burden and allowing more freedom in local affairs. But Zortiger refused: he was king, and he’d rule as he saw fit. If Artorius couldn’t—or wouldn’t follow orders, another would be sent to Sagal and the king would have his head.

Artorius was a good man, rare these days in their government, and the people of Sagal loved him. Sagal was the most prosperous city in the realm and generated most of the king’s revenue. Zortiger did not want to get rid of Artorius unless it became necessary.

Hon’s train of thought was interrupted by a wet, rather slimy sensation on her neck. It was Dawn, nuzzling her, dribbling water from the pond over her shoulder and down her shirt. Hon grimaced good-naturedly and reached to stroke the horse’s nose.

Dawn was a chestnut-colored mustang with a dark brown mane and tail and a lighter tone blaze running up her nose, between her eyes and around her ears. To Hon, it was like the sun coming up, and thus, her name. She was a spirited mare, to put it mildly—most would call her nasty or even vicious. She loved Hon, as her mistress and tolerated Hon’s parents, Sergio and Loris, but beyond that, Dawn wanted nothing to do with people.

She’d stomp, buck, or rear, roll her eyes and even snap when approached too closely. Sergio had advised they drive Dawn off, back into the hills where she belonged, with other wild horses, but Hon plead with him, begging to keep the horse and promising to keep her in check.

Hon had discovered Dawn, several months before that, nearly dead, with a deep, festering wound on her flank. She’d nursed the horse back to health and tamed her, remarkably enough, and then proceeded to break and train her. Dawn had never been tethered or restrained; if she wanted to be free, she was free to go. Dawn stayed though, content in the meadow behind the house or in the barn when the weather demanded shelter.

A splash drew Hon’s attention and looking over she saw a large beaver with a prominent scar on one shoulder, smacking the water with its tail.

“Castor,” Hon said with a smile, “Nice work on the dam. Duke Grudo will be so angry.”

Castor tested the air, eyeing both horse and girl warily. Then he smacked the water again with his tail.

Swinging into the saddle, Hon urged Dawn into a trot, away from the pond and further into the forest. As she went she noticed an overflow, flowing on past the pond as a swift-flowing creek.

The natural state of the river had been quite beneficial to folk living on the outskirts of Merker as her family did. Ingenuity and teamwork had created small windmills and wells, as well as a system of inland waterways to water the plowed fields.

Her father had come up with the idea, several years after Cheston died and Juel fled the city. His idea not only made day-to-day life easier out here, but it also saved the farmers from paying the duke for water for their crops. The year after that, Duke Grudo diverted the river, into the canal she’d passed earlier, which he’d had his servants dig.

Duke Grudo claimed that Sergio’s windmills, wells, and watering system were a form of tax evasion. Further, he informed the citizens, he was planning a lavish garden on his estate, of flowers, exotic shrubs, and waterfalls that the new canal would sustain. This garden would of course be open to the public and a lovely sight for passersby.

True, although visits to the garden required an exorbitant fee. This made it accessible to only the very wealthy. Passersby could of course look for free, but there were strict loitering laws that bore hefty fines. All in all, the garden was a cruel joke to most of Merker.

Hon grinned, stopping Dawn and dismounting in another clearing. She’d tell her father about Castor and the other beavers as well as the dam they’d built. Perhaps he could get the windmills running and the wells full again, but this time quietly, behind the scenes.

She practiced with her bow until late afternoon shadows stretched across the glen. For as long as she could remember she’d been shooting with a bow. When she was little, she’d had a miniature one, made especially for her, by her mother. Through the years she’d grown proficient under her father’s tutelage, graduating from bow to bow until he’d given her the one she now used. On a business trip to the coastal city of Thalick, he’d had the bow custom-made for her, by a renowned artisan.

It was unique and perfectly suited to her stature and strength, but more than that, it carried with it Sergio’s pride and approval. Receiving it said she’d graduated from novice to skilled archer. The little bow her mother first made was a childhood treasure that she saved to pass on to a future child.

No deer ventured into her sights that day, so Honbria and Dawn returned home under a spectacular sunset. Vibrant red merged with glowing yellow, all tinged in pink across the sky. Crickets were beginning to chirp in the bushes, and a light breeze rustled the leaves of the surrounding trees; seemingly it would be a quiet peaceful night.

When she rode into view of the house, however, that notion vanished. Several wagons stood in front of the house, the horses grazing as they nickered back and forth. Dawn pricked her ears and whinnied then shook out her mane; she had no problem with other horses.

Hon rode around back to the barn where she dismounted and led Dawn inside. After stripping her saddle and bridle off, she rubbed the horse down and ran a curry comb over her coat. Then, with a light smack to Dawn’s flank, she sent the horse on her way and headed into the house.

As expected, the farmers and some of the merchants were gathered around the kitchen table with brimming mugs before them. In the center of the table were some rolls, blocks of cheese, and fruit. Her father stood at the table head, conducting the meeting at hand.

He was a handsome man with dark hair tinged with gray and piercing hazel eyes. He was a natural-born leader, the one people flocked to in a crisis. Innovative and ingenious, Sergio was always the man others counted on to come up with a plan.

From behind, Hon’s mother took hold of her hand to tug her into the other room. Loris was petite and had a pleasing figure and blond hair gathered up in a bun and deep blue eyes. Those eyes now brimmed with angry concern as she faced her daughter.

“It’s not dark yet…well it is now, but it wasn’t when I got back. I had to rub Dawn down and…” Hon began, certain she was the cause of her mother’s worry.

Loris interrupted though, guiding Hon to sit beside her on the couch. “It isn’t that. Besides, I’m sure that horse of yours could handle any number of ruffians.”

Hon sputtered a laugh, and Loris smiled briefly but then sobered. “Your father and the others are discussing Duke Grudo’s new plan to confiscate most swords, spears, bows, and arrows. Defense of the city is to be left to the Guard, and hunting will be done by permit only. Those without a permit will need to buy their meat at the market.”

“What?” Hon exclaimed, imagining her own bow, seized and tossed into a pile of others to be locked away or even destroyed.

Loris nodded gravely. “Many of the Duke’s taxes and laws are oppressive. People are struggling just to survive. This new restriction makes no sense: we’ll be defenseless against bandits or any other rogues. If he doesn’t back off, we could have some real trouble here.”

© Copyright 2017-2022 Gene Van Shaar


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