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 7—Honbria 2
The Merker streets were crowded and congested, as they often were during the yearly selection week. Boys and girls who had reached the age of 16, and received a summons from the Duke, were required to report to the armory or the duke’s estate for testing and assignments.
Some of those selected would be drafted into the duke’s guard or the king’s army stationed in the capital city of Cavalon. Others would be appointed or required to become scribes, couriers, accountants, or official aids of various kinds.
Some of those summoned liked the idea of being in the army or having a secure job with an opportunity to get ahead. But most of the youth considered such assignments to be a disruption of their private lives and only complied because it was mandatory.
Many merchants had their wares on sidewalk display, luring in parents to purchase clothing and supplies associated with selections. There were more guards than usual in the streets to maintain order and ensure compliance.
Honbria and her best friend Vida were among the sixteen-year-olds waving at friends and speculating as to who would be selected for what. They were both nervous, Vida because she was hoping for a popular position, and Hon because she was only interested in becoming a scribe.
As a matter of fact, she did not want to be associated with the Duke’s government in any way but she and her parents, Serigo and Loris, had decided that if she was required to serve it would be best to do so as a scribe so that she might have access to information that could help the people. She had always been interested in writing and hoped to be able to use that skill instead of getting some other assignment.
Hon and Vida were required to report to the grand ballroom on the Duke’s estate but they were getting there late in the week because Vida’s family had returned later than expected from the coastal city, Thalick. Of course, Hon could have completed her evaluation in the meantime, but the two had pledged to go through the process together, so Hon had waited.
“Thalick was amazing,” Vida said, as the two walked along. “There are gardens like the Duke’s everywhere, but they’re truly public: completely open to anyone, without an admission cost, like the estate here used to be. There are three times as many shops in Thalick, selling anything you could imagine, even things we’d never seen. We even went on a ferry boat that cruised the bay and served lunch: exotic seafood, heavenly bread, and the desert …”
Honbria nodded, but her mind was elsewhere, in the past, actually. Four years ago it had been her bother Cheston reporting to the armory a few months before Juel disappeared. She could hardly believe she was now the age they had been.
Dragging her thoughts back to the present, she wondered how her selection would turn out. The last thing I want is to be saddled with self-important, condescending and demanding dignitaries. Vida is the one aiming for that station, and she’d be perfect for the job: witty and long-suffering, duly impressed by station and wealth.
“…only scary thing about Thalick was the pirates.”
“What?” Hon refocused on her friend.
Vida nodded. “They dock their ships right alongside the merchants’ and the ferries and strut around like they own the city. We saw them leading people in chains onto their ships; then sailing off to…”
“To what?” Hon felt a chill. “Were they criminals?”
Vida leaned in to whisper, “No. They weren’t even from Thalick. They’d been rounded up in other cities and brought there for the pirates to sell in faraway lands—people for sale. Can you even imagine?”
Hon shook her head. “Surely you misunderstood…”
Vida shook hers right back, her black curls flying around her face. “We met the mayor of Thalick. He and my father are old friends, you know. Mayor O’Rok treated us all to the ferry ride and lunch the day we arrived. He’s quite a character. I really liked him; we’d do better here with someone like him running our city, rather than Duke Grudo, but I digress.”
Hon chuckled. Vida was always a bit scatterbrained.
“Anyway, O’Rok told us the slave trade is very real but ignored for the most part since there isn’t anything Thalick can do to stop it.”
“He’s the mayor though!” Hon exclaimed, imagining something going on here that Duke Grudo didn’t like.
Vida sighed and shrugged. “Mayor is different than duke, apparently. O’Rok needs King Zortiger to back him, to chase the pirates off. They’ve got numbers, and they’re ruthless killers. Plus, Thalick is all about commerce and trade; they have guards and such, but they aren’t soldiers, and they wouldn’t stand a chance against the pirates.”
Hon frowned. “Why won’t the king back O’Rok? Surely he doesn’t want slavery going on or pirates in the city.”
Again Vida shrugged. “Apparently, he doesn’t care.”
They’d reached the duke’s estate by that time, and as they entered the grounds, Hon fought to keep a straight face. None of the waterfalls were flowing and all of the fashioned stream beds were dry. The bushes and trees were all right, but the exotic flowers were dry and wilted.
Nice, Castor, she thought, thinking of the beavers. Sergio and some of the neighbors had the wells full again, and they’d renewed the irrigation system for planted crops. The windmills though twirled uselessly when the wind stirred, as her father hadn’t dared divert the creek water there. The windmills were too visible and obvious, when pumping water to various fields.
Thus far, the duke thought the river had dried up, forest genius that he was, but eventually he’d send a patrol into the hills to check. Fortunately, at least so far, he’d been consumed with the selection process, the assessments, and the coming ceremonies.
“Ladies,” a deep voice boomed.
Both looked up to see one of the guards, Roghaar, wearing the standard jet-black uniform of the Duke’s Guard. They gave him half curtsies, though wearing leggings and tunics rather than flowing skirts, and Hon offered up a smile. Vida though, reluctant in her curtsy, averted her gaze with a grimace.
Hon knew Roghaar from the time Cheston had been recruited, bringing lunch to her brother at the armory while he trained there. He’d been in charge of those bound for the king’s army, and he’d taken an instant liking to her brother and then, by default, her. Roghaar knew Vida simply because she and Hon were so often together.
He was a giant of a man with a full black beard and hair nearly to his shoulders. He had a hawkish nose and wore a scowl most times with pale blue eyes like chips of ice. Despite all that though, Hon knew him to be a fair man and had even heard him crack a joke once or twice.
“He looks like one of the Thalick pirates,” Visa hissed; she didn’t like Roghaar at all.
Hon jabbed her with an elbow. “Hello, good sir.”
“Ha,” he bellowed, wheeling away. “That’ll be the day.”
He waved over his shoulder at them though.
As she and Vida continued toward the entrance doors, Hon’s countenance fell. Roghaar had been among those who’d come to their home the morning of the weapons confiscation. Duke Grudo had come along as well, as he considered Sergio a rabble-rouser in Merker and wanted to personally put him in his place, once and for all.
She and her father had hidden their weapons, including her bow from Thalick well, but the guards had combed through the whole house and rummaged through Hon’s trunk. There they’d found the miniature bow and arrows, made so many years ago by her mother.
At first, they’d all laughed, claiming a grown man would have to draw with a finger rather than his hand. Fiddling with it, one of them broke one of the arrows, and as sorrow pricked Hon’s heart the guards laughed even harder.
She figured they’d put the bow and arrows back into the trunk and move on. To her surprise though, one of them—the one who’d broken the arrow, took the stash down to show the duke, just to be sure.
Pacing the living room in his royal garb, rubbing his cleft chin as he looked about, Duke Grudo took the bow from the guard with a measure of disdain. He’d turned it over and back in long, talon-like fingers, handed it back, and taken the arrows into hand.
Then, thrusting them back as well, looking at Sergio and Loris through cold green eyes, he’d addressed the guard: “Seize it. Place it in the wagon with everything else. I believe we’re done here now.”
Loris looked away, tears brimming as the duke brushed past. Hon was in the doorway, tears streaming down her cheeks, and covered her eyes with her hands.
“Come now, Duke; it’s just a toy,” Roghaar had ventured.
She’d dropped her hands with a little hiccup, suddenly hopeful. As her gaze trailed around the room, she realized he’d spoken to prevent her father, fuming beside his weeping wife, from doing so.
“Toy or not, it’s a weapon, soldier, and weapons in Merker are…what?” the duke quipped, holding a hand to his ear.
Roghaar let his shoulders sag. “Banned, sire.”
The duke’s estate was comprised of several buildings, in addition to his living quarters. The main house was set in the far corner of the estate, with another, smaller gate. It was three stories tall, with verandas circling the two upper levels and flower gardens lining the walkway to the front door.
The manor hall, where visiting diplomats stayed and ceremonies and social functions transpired, was in the center of the estate. A long cobblestone drive led to a courtyard area with a fountain and still more flowers; then it forked, continuing out of sight to the stables.
Walking up the cobblestone drive toward the manor house, as Vida chattered on, Honbria licked her lips, distracted again. Back when Cheston had completed his assessment, the estate grounds had been open to the public each day. Of course, the duke’s living quarters were closed off, for privacy, but the manor house was accessible…and by default, the stables.
People enjoyed walking the grounds and occasionally some would go inside, usually to meet someone of importance who was visiting Merker, or to admire the art and sculptures on display, ever mindful of the rope barriers lining each open hall.
Rarely though, if ever, did people visit the stables. There wasn’t any call to: they were dirty, although pristine to the horses there, but smelly to the human nose. There just weren’t a lot of reasons, for common folk to venture there…unless you were twelve years old and wanted a horse of your own more than anything in the world.
Hon had frequented the duke’s stables often, stroking the horses and talking to them, even currying their coats and braiding their manes and tails. She’d also made herself a little catbird spot, up in the high loft, well hidden, where she could read and study.
Hon shook the memory off, as she and Vida passed through the manor house doors and into the grand ballroom. It was breathtaking, the floor rose-colored marble with glass top tables and high back chairs lining the perimeter, large windows with heavy velvet drapes and an elaborate chandelier with at least a hundred candles.
There were two dining halls, both lavish with one for large groups and the other more intimate, seating no more than a dozen. There were stylish meeting rooms, several smaller ballrooms, and other rooms with priceless artwork on display.
Looking around, Hon saw the golden spiral staircase that led to the upper levels, which had always been strictly off-limits to common folk. This was where visiting dignitaries stayed. It provided privacy and enabled majestic entrances into the grand ballroom or the larger dining hall, where another similar staircase was.
They were among nine other girls from throughout the city, who’d come today to be assessed. Some days, during the week, no one showed up, but that was rare; it was far more common for too many to arrive and a number to be turned away and told to report back the following day.
Most of the boys and girls summoned were assigned a post, but only the top finishers were selected for the best positions. Some considered it a great honor to be selected as a courier, scribe, or steward.
There were desks set up and automatically each girl took a seat. They whispered and giggled nervously until an imposing woman took center stage and cleared her throat. The room fell silent enough to hear a pin drop.
Duke Grudo’s wife, Harriet had iron-gray hair, stylishly cut and swept back from her face. She was tall and wraith-like, with a pointed chin, aquiline nose, and dark, cutting eyes. Her voice was strong and clear when she spoke, and whenever she did she expected those around her to jump.
They got right down to business, with each girl standing to introduce herself: name, previous training, and the position she hoped to win. Harriet checked each name off her list and made notes underneath each line. She then handed her clipboard over to a waiting assistant and retired from the ballroom, back to the main house.
The assistant, a short, stocky woman with red hair just past her shoulders took over. Introducing herself as Annabel, she started them off with an overall exam of reading, writing, and calculation skills, followed by note taking and an essay. After lunch in the courtyard, given the pleasant day, they reentered the ballroom to find several servants waiting.
“These retainers are here to aid in some role-playing with you, ladies,” Annabel explained. “Obviously, this has to do with the office of steward. I’ve instructed them to act as though they were the most difficult person they’ve ever served.”
Thus, the next test began. Hon did her best, biting back a retort several times…just in time. Then she realized, if she didn’t want this post, she could purposely botch the test. Considering, she wavered, always one to excel and put forth her best effort, no matter the task, but in the end, this one time, she slacked. When one of the servants shouted at her, when she refused to kneel and slip a sandal onto his foot, Harriet raised a brow, frowned and shook her head.
Hon knelt quickly to put the man’s sandal on, then glanced over at Vida, who promptly rolled her eyes. Pressing her lips against a grin, Hon straightened, looked the man in the eye and placed both hands on her hips. From the corner of her eye, she saw that Annabel was still watching; then she made a quick note on her pad.
That should do it, Hon thought, as the exercise wrapped up.
Lastly, came the test for courier, arguably the most difficult to attain. Once a good reliable courier was found, they were asked to stay on, even required to. There was always the need for backups though, or extras, if all the regulars were dispatched.
There was running, climbing, and the like, to test overall fitness. Then each girl mounted a waiting horse and galloped, leaped, and cantered, to judge her level of prowess there. Most of the young women had limited riding experience. But most of the riding courier trials were easy for Hon because of her experience riding Dawn. She was also in good physical condition from hiking, hunting and good hard work.
Back in the ballroom at the end of the day Vida and several other girls were led away, bound for the main house. There they’d be treated to tea with the duke and his wife and receive a briefing specific to serving as stewards.
A servant, the one who’d shouted at her during role-play, in fact, sat down at the desk next to Hon. He was wizened and stooped, the head cook in the kitchen, he told her. He had a wry smile, and his eyes were weary but still, they bore a twinkle.
“Never, my dear,” he said, shaking his head. “Never have I seen someone fail so miserably at one thing and excel so at another—two others, actually.”
“Two?” Hon echoed, confused. “I’m sorry about our role play…”
The head cook waved the apology off. “Think nothing of it. I don’t blame you, for not wanting the office of steward.”
Hon frowned. “You could tell?”
He shrugged. “I figured. You were holding up just fine, but then,” he clapped his hands. “Just like that you forgot yourself, and acted like my equal, no less.”
He snickered, and Hon blushed, looking away.
“Never mind that though. You passed the other tests with flying colors. You’ll be a backup courier as well as an active scribe. Your essay skills, note taking and penmanship are the best any here have ever seen—quite amazing. Report back here the first day next week for additional training.”
Stunned, Hon stood from her seat. “Thank you, sir.”
He stood as well and extended a hand. As she took it he chucked, “I’m glad you’ll be aboard.”
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