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 30—First Cavalon Battle
The following day a squad of rangers headed for Cavalon, to spy on King Zortiger and his army while Xan and Artorius planned the initial battle. Artorius and a company of soldiers accompanied Xan and his remaining rangers to scout the lay of the land. They needed every advantage possible, and picking the battlefield was a good first step. Xan and the rangers were unfamiliar with the terrain, while Artorius and his soldiers knew it well.
The King had an army of nine thousand, but they expected a third of that number to march on Merker. King Zortiger would assume, they surmised, that three thousand soldiers would be more than enough to quash Merker’s rebellion. The plan was to intercept Zortiger’s army as it passed through the Sagal countryside on the way to Merker.
Ten miles outside the city, the terrain was rough and mountainous. The broad straight road narrowed and took on hills and curves as natural barriers cropped up. There was one spot with a sharp bend that led into a stretch between steep hills high enough to conceal the Sagal army. They determined this would be the best place to launch their attack since it was a good distance from the city but near enough to reach quickly, once the ranger spies returned.
With their reconnaissance complete, Xan and Artorius agreed that some rigorous practice in the form of mock battles, ambushes, and sneak attacks was in order. The duke possessed great courage and did indeed lead his men into battle, which was very inspiring but exposed him to much danger. Xan and Sheba soon reached the conclusion that their primary focus for the rest of the mission would be protecting him.
Artorius played red man in the first mock battle, and almost at once objected to so much protection. He blustered and raged that they were tripping him up, hovering too close and interfering with his blade.
“I understand you aren’t used to being shielded in this manner, but having you fall in battle is something we must avoid if at all possible,” Xan explained. “Sheba and I, along with, say, four hundred men will serve as a mobile strike force, moving across the battlefield with you.”
Artorius considered a moment then nodded approvingly. “Yes, I see your tactics are sound. I’ll have to get familiar with this new strategy.”
Referred to as the Alpha Team, they practiced deploying in the center of the front line, on the right, on the left, and even attacking from the rear. They also trained as a surprise strike and retreat group. Every Alpha Team member was armed with a sword and shield and either a crossbow or longbow.
As training proceeded Artorius, Xan, and Sheba gained great respect for each other’s skills and developed bonds of friendship and trust. Artorius was recognized as the leader but usually sought and followed Xan’s counsel.
Hon and Vida meanwhile got acquainted with the duke’s wife, Belinda, and their four-year-old twins, Ellis and Gwyn. Belinda was a kindly woman with a regal air. Tall and lithe, she wore her golden blond hair in twisted plaits atop her head and dressed with casual elegance. She was organized and efficient, spending as much time as she could with the twins and relying on the house nanny only when affairs of the state demanded. Each evening without fail Artorius gathered the pair in, tussling with them and telling them stories or reading fairy tales. It was a happy, balanced home with Belinda and Artorius in almost perfect harmony, juggling the duties of ruler and parent as a seasoned team.
The twins were a handful but overall well-behaved, and Hon and Vida were more than happy to entertain them on occasion. They also got acquainted with the estate workforce: the cooks and servers, cleaning staff and messengers, the twins’ nanny, and the administration personnel.
Many were around their age but most were middle-aged, men and women alike, all of whom were competent and efficient with their duties. None were deemed servants and all received a fair wage, treated with equal respect in every way. Some lived in quarters on the estate while others, with families, came and went day to day, making the estate a miniature city in and of itself.
On one occasion, visiting with Belinda in the garden while the twins played nearby, a boy Hon hadn’t seen before approached. He was near her age with dark wavy hair just past the nape of his neck and brown, downcast eyes. Skinny as a rail, with a somewhat twisted spine, his entire body rotated at each step to propel him forward.
She gaped, caught by surprise and speechless. When at last she looked away, she noticed that Vida was still staring at the boy.
“Leif,” the twins cried in unison, charging toward him.
“Children,” Belinda cautioned.
The boy, Leif, carried a stack of documents and given his condition, Hon surmised, he might drop them if Ellis and Gwyn bowled into him. That was exactly what they had in mind, it seemed, but both pulled up short at their mother’s tone.
Leif, looking uncomfortable in Vida’s gaze, looked away from her to smile at the twins. “You’d better hide while you can,” he cautioned them in a teasingly dark tone.
Both children squealed and bolted for cover.
Belinda chuckled, reaching for the documents. “What do we have here?”
“Court proceedings from yesterday, compiled and ready for your signature,” Leif said, extending the stack.
Belinda took them from him and said, “Leif, I’d like you to meet Honbria and Vida. They’re here with Xan and Sheba; I told you about them, remember?”
“I remember.” Leif ventured a glance at Vida.
Belinda regarded them both a moment. “You’ve met Vida already?”
Leif squirmed with a quick nod.
“Any…problems?” she asked.
At first, neither of them spoke, then in unison, they said, “No.”
Hon looked pointedly at Vida, and to her surprise, she squirmed a bit, then shrugged and folded her arms.
“All right,” Belinda said. “Do you mind bringing Ellis and Gwyn inside with you, once you find them a few times?”
“Not at all,” Leif said to her and then called out: “All right you two bandits, here I come.”
The nearby bushes rustled and a gale of giggles sounded. Leif grinned and headed in the other direction, saying loudly, “I know you’re somewhere nearby. I can hear you.”
“Come girls,” Belinda said, heading back toward the mansion. “I’d like to tell you a bit about Leif.”
Hon and Vida followed her, whispering back and forth.
“What was all that about?” Hon demanded.
“I ran into him once or twice; that’s all.”
“Come on,” Hon said skeptically.
Vida sighed. “Some of the kids were pestering him, and I told them to stop. We talked a bit—a few times actually, and yesterday I saw he had a drawing pad. I asked if I could look at his pictures. He let me, and he’s really good—excellent in fact. Some of the pictures were of Sheba, and I swear it seemed the image was about to walk off the page. Then…”
“Then, what?” Hon prompted.
Vida sighed again. “All of sudden, as I was flipping through, he tried to grab the sketch pad back from me. I backed up and held it high. He said I could look, and I wasn’t finished yet. Anyway, there was a loose page that slipped free: it was a picture of me and him with his hand extended, like we were going to dance…or something.”
Hon masked a smile. “I see.”
They entered the mansion and sat down in the drawing room with Belinda, who set the stacked documents aside. “I’ll get to those in a minute,” she said.
“Was he—Leif in an accident or wounded somehow?” Hon asked.
Belinda shook her head. “He was born with a crooked spine, and it’s a miracle he can move about as well as he does. His father was Artorius’ first lieutenant years ago as well as his closest friend. He died in the battle with the king’s army.
“At the time Leif was just a bit older than the twins—he’s fifteen now. When the king’s army stormed through the city, to teach us all a lesson once and for all,” she gave an indignant sniff. “They brutalized and killed some citizens, Leif’s mother among them.”
“How awful,” Vida whispered.
Belinda nodded. “Artorius and I took Leif in, of course, and as time passed his talent at writing and drawing became evident. We encouraged him, and now he’s training as a scribe.
“He does much better interacting with adults; the others his age won’t befriend him, and sometimes they tease. Artorius and I can insist that he’s treated respectfully, but we can’t force true friendships.
“Leif hasn’t joined us for meals since all of you arrived, although he has met Xan and Sheba. There was no need for him to bring these documents to me in the garden just now, yet he did, and I see that as a good sign. Hopefully, he’ll eat supper with us tonight.
“In any event, if you see him in passing, you might take time to get to know him. He could use a friend or two.”
“Of course, we will. He seems like a very nice boy,” Hon said with chagrin, given her first cruel impression.
“Gwyn and Ellis seem to love him,” Vida said.
Belinda smiled. “Oh they adore him, and he’s quite the character with them, as you saw just now. The twins are young and innocent—they see him as he really is, not just how he differs from them.”
Vida dropped her gaze, chewing her lip.
The ranger spies returned at last, with word that that king’s army would soon be marching on Merker. As predicted, roughly a third of Cavalon’s royal forces were being deployed. Sagal’s army also needed to be deployed, leaving a contingent of soldiers and scouts behind, to ensure that Sagal was not undefended.
At their predetermined ambush point, just past the sharp bend in the narrowed road, the Sagal soldiers and Xan’s rangers fanned out into the steep hills. Archers lined the summit of each hill as well, concealed from view amongst boulders and brush. Sheba and several rangers, meanwhile patrolled the area in stealth, to flush out and neutralize any roving Cavalon scouts.
Several hours passed; then a pair of rangers returned with word that Sheba had killed two Cavalon scouts. She and the other rangers remained on patrol but would soon drop back to the ambush point, once the army itself marched into view. Less than an hour more went by; then Sheba bounded into view, trailed by the rangers. Sheba joined Xan and Artorius, while the rangers took position in the hills after giving their report.
Shortly after that sounds of marching feet filled the air, and from the bend in the road a large dust cloud could be seen, then banners cresting a distant rise, and at last the army itself. Artorius shifted uneasily beside Xan who stood calmly, watching the army’s approach as though it was a bank of clouds rolling in.
“Are you sure about this initial ploy?” Artorius grumbled.
Xan gave a definitive nod. “It’s standard protocol for Sheba and me.”
Artorius sighed and signaled the Alpha Team.
They, along with four hundred others stepped forward to block the road. The lead man bore a white flag and raised it high. At the crest of each hill, the hidden archers stepped up while four hundred of those on the ground moved into position, blocking the road from the rear. Everyone held their fire. Artorius, Xan, and Sheba stepped forward to flank the man holding the white flag.
The Cavalon commander halted his army. “You are in rebellion and at odds with the king. Are you seeking now to bend the knee?”
“We hail from Sagal, not Merker. I am Duke Artorius, and we desire a cordial meeting, to avoid unnecessary strife.”
“Come forward then; your request is granted, and your safety thus ensured, on my word as a Cavalon general.”
With that, the general stepped forward to meet Artorius, Xan, and Sheba between the two armies. The general regarded Sheba with a measure of confused trepidation.
“This wild cat…is…not wild—with you?” he asked.
“Her name is Sheba, and she is much more than a wild cat,” Xan replied.
Sheba stood in regal silence, her amber eyes locked on the Cavalon general.
“I can see that,” he mused. “What is it you have to say?”
“This is Xan, whose homeland is Merker. He is the man who helped liberate that city and replaced Duke Grudo with an honorable man in the office of Governor.
“Sagal now stands as Merker’s ally and intends to fight King Zortiger’s tyranny. We have you surrounded but have no desire for bloodshed. We implore you to join the cause of freedom and fight with us against the king.”
The general’s eyes widened. “Sagal too is in rebellion, lured to join a hopeless cause? Did you in Sagal not learn your lesson years ago? It is your blood, Duke Artorius, and that of your people that will be shed.”
Artorius reddened; Sagal’s trouncing at the hand of the king was a sore spot with him. “I did learn my lesson: to bide my time and curb my tongue, but only until an opportunity for success arose. That time has come.”
“Fool,” the general spat, whirling on his heel and striding back to his ranks.
This signaled an end to the truce, and the archers from both hills showered down arrows and bolts on the Cavalon army who fell in great numbers because they were bunched up, in the open, and on much lower ground.
With lightning speed, Artorius, Xan, Sheba, and the Alpha Team attacked and cut down the entire front line. Artorius waded into the battle with Xan and Sheba flanking him. The Alpha Team surged forward, shielding him as they fought with staff, claw, sword, and spear. Their tactics were well-executed and effective.
The rest of the Sagal force charged into the Cavalon army flanks, engaging and confining the enemy soldiers before they had a chance to maneuver. There were casualties, but the Alpha Team and the men on the sides continued to push forward closing the trap.
Meanwhile, arrows and bolts rained down on the middle of the Cavalon army from both sides and the rear. When a third of their number had fallen, the soldiers began to panic and surrender. When the Cavalon general sounded his retreat horn, Artorius signaled a cease-fire.
“There is nowhere to retreat; if you surrender now, you will not be killed,” Artorius shouted.
Many of the Cavalon soldiers dropped their weapons.
Artorius swept his gaze over those remaining. “You have three choices: you can continue to fight and die; you can become prisoners of war, or you can join us in the fight for freedom.”
Some did raise their weapons again, including the general, but they were quickly shot by the archers or taken down by the Alpha Team. Those who’d been undecided dropped their weapons and raised their hands high.
All weapons were collected; then all the Cavalon soldiers who’d surrendered, numbering about two thousand, faced Xan and Artorius with bowed heads. Throughout the rest of the day and into the evening each man faced Xan and his staff individually, required only to look him in the eye and answer a series of questions.
The questions Xan asked each of them were the same he’d asked Roghaar and his patrol, the prison guards, Grudo’s staff, and others. He needed to know which men truly loved freedom and how many of them were willing to fight for it and remain loyal to the cause.
About a thousand of the Cavalon soldiers passed the test and were integrated with Sagal’s forces. The remaining thousand were instructed to care for their wounded then put under guard and taken back to Sagal. They’d be detained for the duration of the battle to come; then Artorius would determine their ultimate fate.
A few of those men sought to flee in the dead of night, but Sheba ran every last one of them down. King Zortiger would be left to assume his army was intact and covering the last leg of their march to Merker. He’d then await word that the rebellion had been crushed, and then, he supposed, appoint another duke.
The Alpha Team deployed scouts and spies back to Cavalon, to monitor Zortiger’s movements and intentions. Xan sent a squad of rangers to Merker, with instructions for Sergio and Roghaar to dispatch three-quarters of the army there to Sagal. This would bring the number fighting under Artorius to about five thousand.
Xan suggested various documents be prepared declaring a state of independence for Thalick, Merker, and Sagal. Duke Artorius would soon march on Cavalon with his army, to free first the city of Cavalon and ultimately the entire realm. Artorius would come not as a conqueror but as a liberator. Once prepared, these documents would be secretly transported to Cavalon and released at the appropriate time.
© 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.