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 9—Honbria 3
The gavel sounded on the podium, silencing the gathered crowd. Seated behind Duke Grudo, Hon sighed inwardly, finishing her sentence, quill to parchment, and resisted the urge to add a final note: Thus, today we see a true travesty of justice in the Merker courtroom.
The man and woman on trial gasped and clutched hands; then the woman began to weep. Seated on one of the benches were four young children, three boys, ages eleven, nine, and three, and a girl of six. All were ashen-faced and fearful, huddled close in the verdict’s wake. All at once, the three-year-old bolted onto the stand, burying his face in his mother’s skirts.
“Take them away—all of them,” Duke Grudo bellowed. “We’re done here, for today.”
He added another gavel pound, sweeping his gaze around the room, across the people there. Then he stood and turned, robe swirling, and exited through the doorway behind Hon’s desk.
Lips pursed, Hon set her quill aside and handed the completed transcript over to be officially filed. She remained seated though, as everyone else stood and began milling toward the courtroom’s public exit. Looking at the distraught family, with all the children on the stand now, crying with their parents, she felt a pang.
They were good, law-abiding people, now bound for a lengthy prison stay. It was the recent weapons ban that tripped them up, that and a violent home invasion. At least there were relatives in the city of Sagal, where the children would be sent.
Hon’s gaze trailed to the four men grouped up across from the family on the stand, leering at them as the parents were separated from their children and led away. All four of the men were scruffy and rough-looking, all bearing cuts and bandages with one on crutches with a splinted leg.
They were bound for a bit of jail time and then some community service for their crime, when prison, at the very least, was what they deserved. The family, on the other hand, should be wearing medals of Honor.
These four men had stormed the family’s home the week before, demanding food and money. The family didn’t have much, but handed it over, hoping the men would just leave. However, one dragged the mother into the bedroom while the others laughed raucously, waiting their turn.
During this time, no one noticed the two older boys slip down to the cellar.
A howl erupted from the bedroom, but it wasn’t the mother, it was her attacker, stabbed with a hunting knife tucked under the bed. Nearly simultaneously, one of the other men cried out, dropping to the floor.
Behind him, the eleven-year-old wrenched a hatchet free from the back of the man’s knee, raising it again at the next in line. Meanwhile, the nine-year-old was dragging an axe toward his father—not one for chopping wood but a battle axe, handed down by his great grandfather who’d fought and died in the king’s army long ago.
The eleven-year-old had lugged the axe from the cellar while the nine-year-old carried the hatchet. Then the older boy had taken the hatchet and attacked while the younger boy dragged the axe onward, to arm their father.
As the wife charged out of the bedroom, bloody knife in hand, the father took up the axe, motioning the eleven-year-old out of the fray. Then husband and wife stood together, their children safely behind them, ready now to stand their ground.
The bandits weren’t armed with weapons, but they might have rushed in as a team, if not for the battle axe. That and the husband’s seething rage were enough for them to call it a night and retreat empty-handed.
The father, though, restrained them, ordered them down into the cellar, and then bolted the door. He’d sent the two older boys to rouse the Guard, and the four bandits were arrested that night.
Only when the whole story came out did they realize it would have been better to have let the men flee. Now, in a fortnight or so, four hardened criminals would roam the streets of Merker again, while a humble farmer and his wife wasted away in prison.
When one of the men glanced over at Hon, she quickly looked away, busying herself with tidying up her already pristine desk. She felt her face flush under his gaze and noted a tremble in her hand, imagining the four storming her home, grabbing her mother… maybe her as well.
They’d have fought too, armed with hidden weapons, and her father would likely have held the men as the farmer had…sent her to summon the Guard. Then it would be them, bound for prison. Her mouth went dry.
When Hon looked up at last the four men were gone and the courtroom empty. Slowly she stood and gathered her pack. Stepping down from the podium, she headed for the door.
Outside dusk was falling. It had been a longer than usual day, with the double trial and all. She arched her back, wincing at the cramped muscles from sitting tensed in the courtroom for so long. Rotating her neck, she thought of a nice hot bath when she got home and sighed—that would be just the thing.
All at once, she straightened, craning her neck to better see down the street. Then, with a grin she quickened her stride, dodging back and forth, around passersby, closing in on the figure she’d spotted.
The girl turned at the sound of her name, and Hon waved. To her surprise, Vida made as though to turn away but then turned back, returning the wave with a forced smile.
“How have you been?” Hon exclaimed when she reached her. “I haven’t seen you for ages.”
Vida merely shrugged, trying and failing to smile again.
“What’s wrong?” Hon put an arm around her shoulders.
Vida stiffened, shrugging her off. “Nothing.”
When she started walking again Hon followed after a beat, not saying a word. They walked in silence, through the downtown area and on past a cluster of homes.
Several of them were vacant because the families had packed up recently and moved out of Merker. At another house people were loading several wagons with their possessions, relocating as well, it seemed. High taxes and increasing regulations were the source of the exodus, and if the trend continued Merker would be nothing but a ghost town…ruled by a ghoul.
Hon snickered at the thought.
“What?” Vida whirled on her.
Hon stepped back. “Nothing; I was just thinking of something.”
Vida let her shoulders slump. “Sorry. How do you like being a scribe?”
“Most of the time it’s all right, but days like today are just awful,” Hon sighed.
Hon blew out a breath. “There was a home invasion at one of the farms last week. They were ready to give the bandits what little they had, but then one of them dragged the mother off…”
Vida paled. “He raped her?”
“He tried, apparently the others intended to as well, but she got hold of a hidden knife and fought him off.”
Hon continued, recounting the events she’d heard and transcribed that day.
“The four men are going to prison then.” Vida stated.
Hon rolled her eyes. “No. That’s the bad part, the part I despise being part of, even if it’s just recording the proceedings. The men will serve a bit of jail time and then community service; it’s the husband and wife bound for prison. The children will stay with relatives in Sagal.”
“That’s not fair,” Vida exclaimed. “They were only defending themselves, in their own home.”
Hon nodded sadly. “The thing is, the bandits were unarmed, and none of the family members were injured. They had hidden weapons though—especially that battle axe, which really curled the duke’s hair. They had it in the courtroom on display, and I’ll tell you something: those men are lucky to be breathing. I’m surprised the one boy managed to get the thing up the cellar stairs.
“Anyway, all of the men were wounded, and the one the oldest boy whacked with the hatchet may have a permanent limp.”
“Good,” Vida muttered. “But of course the duke pardoned them.”
“They weren’t pardoned, even if they got off easy…”
Vida stopped in her tracks, raising both hands to her hips. “Jail and community service—for rape? That sounds like a pardon to me.”
Hon bobbed her head. “True, but the mother wasn’t actually raped; she fought the one off with the hidden knife…”
“He meant to; and so did the others,” Vida spat. “She had a weapon…she should have killed him—all of them.”
“Vida?” Hon was shocked; this wasn’t like her friend at all.
“Too harsh? You have no idea.” Vida was trembling now, hands clenched into fists at her side; in a whisper she added, “Neither does he.”
“What? Who?” Hon asked, puzzled.
Vida didn’t answer though. She merely turned and strode purposefully off, across the street to her house, up the walk and inside without looking back, slamming the door behind her.
Hon blinked. What just happened? She was tempted to cross the street herself, knock on the door and get to the bottom of this with Vida here and now. Arguing though wouldn’t help matters, and Vida was clearly angry…upset about something… I’m angry too. She has no call to speak to me that way, as though it was my verdict in the courtroom today.
No, this would have to wait for a spell, until both of them cleared their heads and calmed down. On that note, Hon resumed her stride, on through the little neighborhood and onto the trail through the forest to her home.
As she walked, her thoughts turned again to the city. Since Duke Grudo’s weapons ban there had been a number of infringements. None so serious as the one ruled on today—in fact, most were hunting infractions, but still. Up until now, there’d been fines levied, and of course weapons were confiscated, but no one had been jailed. Now, it seemed, a new precedent had been set, one that did not bode well for the law-abiding. Rather, it seemed to favor lawbreakers.
What a mess, she thought with a sigh and determined not to play devil’s advocate at all, when she told her parents about court today. Perhaps that was what set Vida off. It wasn’t that she agreed with what had transpired; she’d merely stated the facts. There were mitigating circumstances, but the law was the law.
That’s what Vida misunderstood—that Hon didn’t agree at all with what happened but was merely recounting it. Suddenly uncomfortable, Hon wondered if by doing so she wasn’t in some way complicit, but what could she do, as a mere scribe? Add that last note to the transcript? The thought gave her pause.
Maybe I should have. No one actually reads the parchment, not right after the trial anyway; it’s just for future reference. One day someone would read it though and wonder who the scribe was. They’d check, find her name, and know that she objected. It would not have been like leaping to her feet and protesting vocally, but at least it would have been something.
At the last bend, a whinny sounded, and Hon grinned, whistling back shrilly. Pounding hooves filled the air; then Dawn streaked into view, slowing before her to nuzzle Hon’s cheek. Hon stroked her neck then reached into her pack for an apple. Dawn took it gingerly from her hand, munching contentedly as they continued on to the house together.
Inside the house was dark and quiet—no one home, it seemed. Hon called out anyhow, setting her pack on one of the chairs. Then she lit a nearby candle and carried it to the kitchen where she found a note on the table.
Your father and I are at the Co-op. We’ll be late but expect to be home just after sundown. Come by if you can. So far it looks promising—maybe the answer for a lot of folk in Merker.
Hon nodded, setting the note aside. She’d forgotten all about the Co-op and was pleased its debut was going so well. Sorely tempted to saddle Dawn up and ride out there, she looked out the window. It was past sundown and her parents would likely arrive back any time now. Tomorrow then, she decided. I’ll visit the Co-op tomorrow for sure.
The Co-op was her father’s latest scheme to thwart the duke’s iron thumb and help the common folk. People would bring what they produced: clothing, food, tools, and the like, and barter with each other, straight across the proverbial table. They’d have what they needed with no coin changing hands and thus no tax.
This wouldn’t work for everything, of course, and only the poorest so far had shown interest, but that was fine. Sergio didn’t want a huge production, just something to keep the peasants fed. The Co-op would be open for people to gather and trade each day from late afternoon until sundown, with the understanding that very little be said of it, lest the duke learn of it.
Candle in hand, Hon left the kitchen and headed upstairs. A long soak in the tub sounded heavenly, and she’d indulge herself with some bath salts too. After that…after dinner perhaps, she’d get her journal out and record the day’s events, while they were fresh in her mind, including the perplexing encounter with Vida.
She started the tub filling and began to undress, running things over in her mind. After adding the bath salt, she pinned up her hair and slid into the tub, sighing as she submerged in the steaming water.
Almost at once, she closed her eyes. Something was going on with Vida, that much was clear, but what? She was glad now she hadn’t confronted her earlier, after her friend stormed off. She’d be prepared, when she saw Vida next, and coax whatever was wrong out into the open. Then, somehow, together they’d resolve whatever it was.
She opened her eyes and sat up in the tub, soaped herself and rinsed off. By the time she was towel-dried and ready to dress, she heard the door open downstairs, along with her parents’ cheerful voices.
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