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 31—Final Battles
With Sheba at his side, he stood before them in the Hall of Truth, as they outlined his coming mission. Those gathered looked on and he felt his heart swell, eager to embark on the liberation of Cavalon.
Thoth sobered, looking him in the eye. “I must warn you of something else. We have a common enemy who fights against life, light, and freedom. Wherever he rules, suffering and chaos follow. He is real and entices others to follow him, usually by appealing to their vanity and greed or preying on a lust for power. On every mission, you will encounter evil rulers who oppress and destroy. Men such as these are his followers.
“He has many names, some of which are Set, Lucifer, Abaddon, and Typhon. We call him The Devourer. He devours freedom, life, and prosperity, and he and his servants will fight against you and try to destroy you at every turn. He usually will not reveal himself but will work through deception and trickery. He is a liar and a murderer. If he is unable to destroy you he will seek to discourage and divert you. Beware of his power and influence, but remember we will not allow him to destroy you, or tempt you beyond what you can resist. If you can resist him, he will flee from you.”
Xan sat bolt upright in bed, heart pounding. Climbing from the covers, he stepped to the window and looked out over the city. To his surprise Sheba stood below, gazing up at his window. The moment she saw him there she began pacing, back and forth, urging him to join her.
He dressed quickly and slipped outside, into a starless night with a mere sliver of a moon in the sky above. Sheba met him on the far side of the manor, and together they headed off the grounds, through the sleeping city, and into the nearby hills.
When they reached a bluff overlooking Sagal, Xan sat down, and Sheba vanished from view like a trail of smoke. Alone, he contemplated his mission: what had been accomplished thus far and what was coming.
Roghaar would arrive soon with the Merker forces, and they’d face King Zortiger head-on. The battle would be brutal, but he was confident that they’d prevail, having Artorius as general, with an army loyal to the death, as well as a thousand of King Zortiger’s soldiers, seasoned and well-trained, now committed to liberty’s cause.
A faint red glow down the trail jarred him from his thoughts and he stood, as a figure moved into view. It was a magnificent man with a faint red aura about him. Curious but also wary, Xan held his ground and waited.
Stopping before him, the man smiled. “My name is Hubal, Prince of Power. If you are true and faithful I will grant you three wishes.”
Xan stood dumbstruck as remembrance of his dream washed over him. The confrontation Thoth had warned him of was nigh at hand, but the man before him did not seem threatening. On the contrary, he seemed glorious, and three wishes would liberate the realm of Cavalon, without a single casualty on either side.
“Come now, do not hold back. Would you like to feel more pleasure than you ever have before, for as long as you desire?” he prompted.
Xan thought he would like that very much but did not respond. Hubal’s smile had taken on a sly edge, and Xan knew the danger of overindulgence.
Hubal’s voice turned silky smooth, as he slowly folded his arms. “If you like, I will grant you more praise and power than a king.”
Suspicion rose in Xan, and he folded his arms; then slowly shook his head.
“Let us not quibble,” Hubal snapped. “Bend the knee before me and the entire world is yours.”
Xan spoke at last, seeing through Hubal’s guile. “I serve the Lords of Freedom and will accept none of your gifts. Be gone.”
Enraged, Hubal shouted, “You will bend the knee now or be tortured to death and beyond.”
Thunder sounded, the earth shook, and Xan felt a jolt of fear. A vision of hell materialized, where the city of Sagal had been, and thick darkness gathered. Xan found himself immobile, unable to move or speak, and pain exploded through his body.
I’m covered in blood…will I soon die—or am I dead already?
In a burst of light Maat appeared, stepping quickly between Xan and Hubal. Thoth also appeared, moving next to Maat.
“From this moment on Alexandros will have power to resist and rebuke you. I command you to depart, now.”
Hubal scowled at Thoth’s words but turned on his heel and retreated into the darkness.
Maat faced Xan, who was no longer bloody or in pain, and in full control of himself. He felt a surge of joy and smiled his thanks.
Maat took his face in her hands. “You have now met the Devourer we warned you of. Even though we have given you the power to resist his direct attacks and rebuke him, he will continue to fight against you—to trick you or to send his servants against you.”
“Always remember who and what you are,” Thoth added. “Be ever strong and courageous, for we have made you and Sheba like unto a defended city and an iron pillar.”
Xan collapsed to the ground, as the two gods faded into the rising sun.
Sheba soon joined him, licking his face with her raspy tongue. Using her bulk, Xan pulled himself to his feet, leaning against the great cat as they made their way back to the city.
When they reached the duke’s mansion Xan sank onto one of the benches in the garden and Sheba lay down at his feet. Leaning forward, elbows on his knees, he breathed deeply, feeling his strength return. Thinking over the experience he’d just had, he slowly shook his head. It was incredible: frightening, challenging, and awe-inspiring all at once. It had been wonderful to see Thoth and Maat and to know they were pleased with his efforts thus far.
He looked up at the sound of Hon’s voice to see her hurrying toward him. Vida was with her as well but hung back, waiting to see what happened before approaching.
“What’s the matter?” Hon asked with concern.
“Nothing,” he smiled, motioning for her to join him on the bench. “I’ve been in the wilderness since before dawn, facing an incredible challenge. It drained me, is all; I’m fine now though. I was just pondering.”
“What sort of challenge?” she asked, as Vida turned and went on her way.
“It’s hard to explain. My integrity and honor were on the line, you might say. What were you and Vida up to?”
“We were in the kitchen with the cooks and it turned out they were short on eggs, so we volunteered to dash into the city and fetch some.” Hon looked around with a laugh. “I guess Vida went on without me. She was complaining about being hungry, which was why we went to the kitchen in the first place.”
Xan laughed too. “Now that you mention it, breakfast sounds good.”
Sheba purred low and loud then loped out of view, back toward the forest to forage her own meal.
“Wait,” a voice behind them called and then sighed heavily.
They turned to see Leif, leaning against a nearby tree with his sketch pad.
“Drawing Sheba again?” Xan said.
Leif nodded. “The three of you, actually, but I can finish up; I have the gist of it.”
“Can we see?” Hon asked, standing from the bench.
Leif nodded. “It’s just a rough outline though.”
The drawing promised to be masterful, once finished, fine details already hinted at, with light and shadow giving it depth. Xan looked like the warrior he was, ready for battle but at peace for the moment, with Hon. She appeared his perfect counterpoint, and Leif had added in a stash of arrows and a bow across her shoulder. He’d seen her shoot, seen her training Vida with a bow, and knew how proficient she was. Sheba was the final touch, looking either terrifying or reassuring, depending on which side you chose.
“Another masterpiece in the making,” Xan said, clapping Leif’s shoulder lightly. “Show it to us when you’re done.”
Leif smiled wide. “Certainly. Have you seen Vida by chance?”
“She’s on an errand but it shouldn’t take long. She’ll go first to the kitchen if you want to wait for her there,” Hon said.
Leif glanced toward the manor, at the kitchen entrance. “I’ll work on my sketch and watch for her.”
Hon and Xan left him to it, circling the grounds and talking. At first, they spoke of inconsequential things, their conversation easy and light, joking and laughing as they went. Gradually they turned to more important things, like Vida and Leif’s blooming friendship.
“Leif is a good kid,” Xan said. “His situation mirrors mine in certain ways, losing his parents and all. He was young though and sees Artorius and Belinda as his father and mother, but still…”
“He’s good for Vida too and she for him. He has a crush on her, that’s clear, but she’s also the first real friend he’s had. From her side, he’s younger than we are but insightful, and not at all threatening, even if he is…”
“A boy,” Xan finished.
“Yes,” Hon agreed. “Vida is strong; she’ll get through her trauma one way or the other, but with Leif as a friend it will go smoother, I think.”
Sheba rejoined them, as they passed by the front of the mansion, and at the same time, the front door swung wide. Artorius stepped onto the porch, beckoning them.
“What is it?” Xan asked.
“Some of the spies we sent to Cavalon have returned, along with some of our local scouts with word of the Roghaar’s progress. They’re all inside if you want to hear their report.”
“I do indeed,” Xan said, and Artorius retreated back inside, leaving the door ajar.
“What sort of news do you think they have?” Hon asked, grabbing his arm.
He shrugged. “I expect it will be inevitable news—that King Zortiger has learned of his army’s defeat to Sagal’s forces—that they never reached Merker.”
“I thought none of his soldiers escaped.”
“They didn’t. Moving an entire army like Roghaar is, heading here can’t be done without word getting out. The king will learn what happened from his own spies or from travelers passing the word—the same way news of O’Rok ending the slave trade in Thalick circulated. Zortiger will waste no time dispatching a larger force. We need Roghaar and the Merker army here as soon as possible.”
Hon fell quiet, looking down at her hands.
“Now it’s my turn to ask: what’s wrong?” He tilted her chin upwards with a finger.
She drew in a deep breath. “When you went to battle the first time, I feared you wouldn’t come back. I was beside myself, nearly sick with worry. Now you’ll be heading out again, into an even fiercer fight.”
Do not worry Honbria. I’m never far from Xan’s side on the battlefield and will see him through safely every time.
Hon stiffened and her eyes flew to Sheba. “She spoke to me.”
Xan put an arm around her. “I knew she would, eventually.”
Sheba butted her head against Hon’s thigh with a throaty purr. Trust me to always help him return unscathed.
“I will,” Hon said, looking into Sheba’s eyes. “I do.”
Training in Segal resumed, with the recruited Cavalon soldiers integrated and familiarized with Xan’s various strategies. Roghaar and the thousand Merker soldiers arrived a few days later, bringing their total number to four thousand. Artorius was the army commander, with a general leading each thousand men—Roghaar led those from Merker.
The training focused on large-scale field operations such as maintaining a solid front line and flanking maneuvers, and the best placement and use of archers. Formation changes were rehearsed over and over as well as dispatching large squadrons to attack simultaneously from various directions.
Xan informed Artorius and the generals that Sheba would be almost invincible in battle and that they could depend on her help. They agreed on a plan for Sheba to wreak havoc among enemy archers just prior to the battle. The training also included ways of quickly deploying the Alpha Team for maximum impact.
In the coming conflict, their opportunities to use elements of surprise would be limited, which made tactics their primary concern. They expected the king’s army to advance as a group, attempting to overpower their opponents with superior numbers. Spies and scouts came and went, gathering intelligence and reporting in, keeping Xan and Artorius abreast of the enemy’s progress and strategy.
When Zortiger’s army was a day’s march out, Artorius led Sagal’s army to the bend in the road between the two steep hills. It was the perfect place to intercept the enemy and an advantageous place to engage. Sheba patrolled the battleground area and eliminated many Cavalon scouts.
The following afternoon, as Zortiger’s army moved into view, their commander halted and dispatched a negotiation request. Along with Xan, Sheba, and Rogaar, Artorius marched forth.
The Cavalon general wasted no time speaking up. “Why have you rebelled against the king?”
“As you well know, King Zortiger is a tyrant. We fight for our freedom. Will you join us?” Artorius replied.
“I am loyal to the king and demand that you surrender. If you refuse, you will be annihilated,” the general said angrily.
“It is you and your armies that are in danger. Will you surrender so that your lives may be spared, to enjoy the fruits of freedom?” Artorius countered.
“Never,” the general spat as he stomped off, “Prepare to die.”
Cavalon archers were stationed in straight lines at the rear of their formation, and Sheba charged out of a gully hitting their left flank. Clawing as she ran through their ranks she wreaked havoc across the lines of archers and then turned around for another pass.
Both sides were stunned by her speed and ferocity, but as Sheba launched her second pass, two thousand Sagal archers raised their bows, sending volley after volley of arrows at the Cavalon troops. Between Sheba and the incoming arrows, the Cavalon archers managed to get off very few shots.
As the Cavalon soldiers at the front hesitated, a thousand Sagal soldiers attacked with spears, shields, and swords. With the front lines engaged, the Alpha Team swung around to their right and attacked the Cavalon flank. By then Sheba had completed her second pass and joined the blitz with Artorius and Xan.
In less than half an hour, with more than two thousand of the king’s men dead or wounded, discipline began breaking down, and many started to withdraw. The Sagal forces held their fire until their forces were separated; then they rained down still more arrows and bolts on the remaining Cavalon soldiers.
At the same time, five hundred Sagal soldiers swung out and around, hitting Cavalon’s other flank resulting in deadly pressure on three sides. With roughly half their comrades out of action, a horn sounded and the Sagal army held their fire once again.
Artorius shouted, “Your lives will be spared if you surrender now. Drop your weapons and hold your hands high.”
Every man still standing did so, admitting defeat. King Zortiger’s army was finished.
Prisoners were secured and the treatment of the wounded commenced. As this transpired, Artorius stumbled in his step and started to fall. Roghaar, walking alongside him, managed to catch his arm and lower him to the ground. He called several men over to move the duke to a medical tent then hurried off to locate Xan.
“Artorius has been wounded,” he said once he found him.
Xan rushed back to the medical tent, to find Artorius laid out on a cot and grumbling mightily. “It’s nothing but a flesh wound. Help me up.”
The medic tending him blanched, but obeying orders, eased him to a sitting position, but as the duke swung his legs around a wave of dizziness hit, and he nearly toppled over. The medic deftly caught him and eased him back down.
Xan sighed. “Let him take a look, all right?”
Artorius looked up with another grimace, adding a nod as the medic began unbuckling his mail. Xan moved to the far side of the tent and rummaged through his satchel. Retrieving a small vile, he returned to Artorius’ side.
There was an ugly gash on Artorius’ chest, received from a well-aimed spear or sword. His armor had prevented deeper penetration which might have been fatal, but the wound was serious and bleeding heavily.
Xan motioned the medic back, crouched beside the cot, and uncapped the vile. Inside was some of the healing water from the sacred spring, which he applied to Artorius’ wound, as he had Sheba’s wound after removing the boar tusk.
“What is that you’re pouring on me?” Artorius demanded, gritting his teeth in expectation of searing pain.
“Just relax,” Xan murmured.
The healing water bubbled up and turned white in the wound, but caused Artorius no pain. His eyes widened, and he met Xan’s gaze. Xan remained quiet, dousing the wound a second time. It mended, bit by bit, and was completely healed by the time Xan recapped the vile.
Artorius sat up on the cot, feeling no more dizziness. “This is miraculous. Are you a wizard then?”
Xan chuckled. “Hardly; I’m a mere man, the same as you, only with a mission to complete and the tools to accomplish it. I ask that the manner and extent of your healing remain between the two of us.”
Slowly Artorius nodded, rising to his feet. Xan stood as well, and the duke drew him into a brief embrace, clapping his back soundly. Then he drew back and strode with purpose from the tent.
That night word was sent to distribute the previously prepared documents throughout Cavalon. Each copy contained the following decree, bearing Artorius’ seal:
The Cavalon army sent to conquer Sagal has been completely defeated.
Surviving soldiers are now prisoners of war who will be released if they are willing to support the cause of freedom. The reign of the tyrant Zortiger is at an end.
Duke Artorius of the city Sagal shall visit the city Cavalon, not as a conqueror, but as a liberator. All who lay down their weapons and receive him in peace will suffer no harm. No property will be seized, and no vandalism will transpire. Freedom is dawning, not only in the city of Cavalon, but throughout the kingdom.
© 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.