Excerpt for Freeman's Choice by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Freeman’s Choice


Freeman #1



C.M. Simpson



When Lorellan Cartwright finds buying back the woman he loves an impossible task, he promptly steals her away, but escaping from the criminally minded third duke of Aristoc and reaching a place of safety are two very different things. And stealing from the duke embroils Lorellan and Megan in the politics of crime lords, long forgotten races of fantasy, aliens and interstellar law enforcement. Can they escape the tangled webs woven by others and find refuge? Or will they join the ranks of those who tried before and failed?



Smashwords Edition

C.M. Simpson Publishing

Copyright © August 11, 2017 C.M. Simpson

Cover Art—3D Rendering Black Dragon on White © Valentyna Chukhlyebova at Dreamstime

Cover Art—Space Ship © Junichi Shimazaki at Dreamstime

Cover Art—Universe Starscape Background © Ezumeimages at Dreamstime

Cover Photography—Aguilles Mountain Range Peaks and Green Forest © Pavalache Stelian at Dreamstime

Cover Design © July 8, 2017, C.M. Simpson

All rights reserved.



Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it to smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.




DEDICATION



This is for all those who believed in me enough that, eventually, I had the courage to believe in myself.


Thank you.






CONTENTS



Lotharian and Lorellan

The Hunter

Night Flight

Of Rats and Foxes

The Watcher and the Elf

Pursuit and the Hunter

Sanctuary

The Watcher and Other Things

Some Answers and a Meal

Lance

Delay

Of Folk and Ancients

Hirondel

Wedding Bells

Two Dukes

Of High King and Folk

Meetings and Farewells

Jesserak, Lance and Liddell

Watchers and the Black Watch

Beginnings

Jeremy

Faerie Folk

Journey Eastward

Earl Easterlander

Travels

Elven Meetings

Elven Decision

Earl Easterlander Interferes

Dwarven Meeting

Winter in the East

Black Watch Spring

Spring—Lorellan

Flight

Dragon Council

Arrival at the Protectorate

Black Watch Attack

Protectorate Hospitality

The Trial

The Iridescent Hatchling, the Ancient Wyrm and the King of Folk

The Hall of Judgment

An End and a New Beginning

Alliances and Healing

Future Hopes

About C.M. Simpson

More Works by C.M. Simpson




LOTHARIAN & LORELLAN



Lotharian Aristoc was a man who sought to rebuild an empire—his grandfather’s empire, a web of crime that had spanned his planet’s solar system, and reached its tendrils into four others, before Lotharian’s father had ended it.

Lotharian sighed and drummed his fingers on the high, halerdian-topped bench before him. Like father, like son, he mused. The saying made him laugh every time he heard it. In this case, the son had been his father’s demise, and rebelled against the principles his father had insisted he learn—just as his father had done before him.

Honesty, bah! Where did that get anyone? Lotharian had been under his grandfather’s influence for too long. With his father away on the ‘honest’ side of his grandfather’s business, and his mother too afraid to interfere, Lotharian had learnt what the old man had failed to instil in his own son.

True enterprise had no time for the law. It had no time for fetters imposed by those without an entrepreneurial bone in their bodies. True enterprise was a jungle where profit was the reward, and entrepreneurial predators took vulnerable markets as prey. And, just as the flesh of prey could be torn, openings could be made.

Subtlety was an advantage, where it could be used, but brutality had its place. Lotharian had learned it all, and learned the statesman's art of concealment when it came to hiding the predator within. His father hadn't suspected a thing, and even his mother had been shocked when he’d made his play for his grandfather’s empire—an empire he felt should already be his.

When he reached his majority, Lotharian had seen to his father’s disappearance. Grandfather, watching from his cell on another world, had approved.

Lotharian was determined Grandfather’s empire would live again—and, this time, it would be greater than before. The boy-become-man often dreamed about this renewed empire. Even here, in the Hall of Audience, built by his father to hear the petitions of his servants, the dream could live anew.

His attendance at the Hall was a farce he’d created from something his father had started for real. Lotharian continued it because it gave him status in the eyes of certain ladies he knew—and that was something worth contemplating a little longer.

The dark-clad man beside him gave a discreet cough, warning Lotharian of the arrival of yet another petitioner. They were becoming fewer every month, as word spread of just how their master answered petitions for mercy. Lotharian leaned forward on his chair upon the dais, and looked down at the man who stood before him.

His eyes lost their look of sleepy disinterest when he saw the man was a stranger, and one who did not wear the insignia of a slave. A freeman? In his hall? This could be interesting.


* * *


Lorellan Cartwright returned the young duke’s gaze with an even stare, and did not miss the barely concealed affront he caused. He cursed himself ten times a fool when, a slow smile spreading across his face, the duke spoke.

And what is your request, Freeman?” The last word was almost an insult.

Lorellan held the duke’s eyes as he replied. “I have come to ask for the hand of a field girl.”

The duke’s eyebrows rose, and he used a many-ringed finger to stroke his chin in mock thoughtfulness.

“Do you indeed? And what would you offer for her hand?”

“My blessing on your house.” Lorellan knew it was fruitless, but he had to try.

The duke frowned: “You are asking me to give you one of my slaves?” he asked.

Lorellan nodded, and the duke laughed.

“Hah! Very funny,” he roared, and then sobered. “Now, what did you really think of offering?”

Lorellan replied without hesitation. “Her blood price, your Honour.”

Her blood price, no less.” The duke gave such a predatory smile, Lorellan thought it more a baring of teeth. “And for which of my field girls do you make such a generous offer?”

Even Lorellan at his most optimistic could not miss the sarcasm in those last two words.

“For Megan Hallowbranch,” he replied, trying to keep his voice even.

The duke frowned, as he flicked through the register lying on the low, wooden table beside his seat. There was silence in the hall as he ran his finger down a column of names.

“Ah, the betrothed of one Lorellan Cartwright, before he bought his freedom under my father,” he said. His eyes narrowed. “And you are an agent for the man?”

No, my lord. I am the man,” Lorellan replied.

“She’s doubled in value, you know.” The duke’s eyes didn’t quite mask the satisfaction he felt at being able to bait the man. “I’ve had another express interest in that particular field girl. He offered a decent sum for her, too. A good deal more than her blood price, in fact.”

“I’ll give you more than what you were offered,” Lorellan replied, trying to keep his voice calm.

The duke’s eyebrow’s rose higher.

“You don’t even know the price,” he countered.

“I’ll give double her blood price.” Lorellan replied, anxiety getting the better of him.

“Really?” Lotharian did not bother to hide his annoyance and amusement. “I have a more suitable price in mind.”

Freemen he despised, ex-slaves freed by his father he came close to hating. Observing the stubbornness in the face of the man before him, he considered his next words carefully. He could do with a fight. When he replied, his eyes were expressionless pools of brown, and his face held a look that would tolerate no argument.

Lorellan waited.

“Ten years of service to me, and every child born to you in those ten.”

The duke watched as the freeman’s face lost its look of composure. The glimpse of shocked outrage lasted only a few seconds, before Lorellan replaced the mask, but those few seconds were enough. Lotharian didn’t bother to hide the stab of satisfaction he felt at the sight of it.

For his part, Lorellan felt as though he’d been punched in the gut. He drew in a quick breath, trying to control his shock and anger, and almost failed.

“You can’t mean th—” he began.

“Can’t I?” The duke’s voice was whiplash-sharp.

It warned Lorellan to hold his tongue, and hide his anger more deeply. After all, he had planned for this and he couldn’t, mustn’t, risk... Meg.

Finding his voice, again, and forcing it to calmness, Lorellan replied, “Agreed, my lord.”

With any luck, he’d put enough resignation in his answer to convince the man of his defeat.

“Agreed?” Surprise shot through Lotharian’s tones. “No argument?”

“For a lifetime with Meg?” Lorellan said. “No. I agree to your terms.”

Sentimental fool! Lotharian smiled, and Lorellan imagined fangs behind the young duke’s lips, fangs and dripping poison. He struggled to keep his composure as Lotharian spoke again.

“Seven days, Freeman,” the young duke said, “Seven days for you to order your affairs, and then you will be mine.”

Lorellan controlled the bile that threatened to rise at the words. He bowed, fighting down the urge to leap upon the dais and strangle the arrogant young pup sitting there. When he straightened again, his face showed no sign of the war that raged within.

“Yes, my lord.”

He turned to go, but Lotharian’s voice made him pause.

“Seven days, Freeman. If you are not returned by the sunset of the seventh, you have forfeited your claim.”

“Agreed, my lord.” This time Lorellan could not keep the tremor of anger and revulsion from his words.

Lotharian smiled. “You may go.”

He watched Lorellan stalk from the hall, then nodded to the man beside him. His bodyguard and hunter followed the freeman out, moving as silently as a dawn breeze.

Lotharian sat back in his seat, and smiled to himself. For once, the farce had been worth it. Revenge would be sweet, indeed.

He rolled the terms, his terms, for the freeman’s betrothal through his mind—ten years of service for a freedom that would never be given, ten years for a bride he might not even allow the man to have. Lotharian’s satisfaction grew deeper.

Revenge. After all what was a bargain with a slave? He watched as his hunter paused in the doorway, nodding acknowledgement, as the man turned to salute him before sliding into the sunlight outside.




THE HUNTER



Lorellan held his temper as he stalked out of the hall and into the light. Ten years! It made him want to scream. No, it made him want to tear the arrogant, young puppy on the dais limb from limb.

He snatched his horse’s reins from the hitching rail in front of the hall. It flinched away from him, startled by his anger, and, again, Lorellan forced himself to calm.

Speaking soothingly to the beast, he flicked the reins over its head. In return, it nuzzled his ribs, as though seeking reassurance. Gently, but firmly, Lorellan pushed its head away, and swung into the saddle on its back.

With a twitch of the reins, he turned the horse from the rail. He tapped its sides with his heels, and it jolted into a trot until someone else’s hand gripped the reins, jerking it to a stumbling halt.

Lorellan thudded back into the saddle, as the horse stumbled and jerked sideways, trying to regain its balance. He glanced down to see the dark man from the hall had wrapped his hand around the reins.

The man ignored Lorellan’s shout of anger. His hand didn’t relax its grip on the bridle until the freeman was again sitting quietly in the saddle.

A message from my master, Duke Lotharian Aristoc the Third, for the Freeman, Lorellan Cartwright.” The man’s voice rasped like gravel, and Lorellan frowned.

“I’m listening, Hunter.”

The dark man gave him a smile, tight and thin, and so fleeting Lorellan almost thought he’d imagined it. Just as quickly, the man’s face turned hard with warning.

“Return no sooner than seven days, and expect your freedom no earlier than the end of the tenth year. Expect no freedom beyond your own and that of your betrothed. If you expect more, if you attempt ought else, your life is forfeit.”

“I hear you.”

The hunter’s face held a questioning look, as he gazed up at the rider.

“Aye, you hear me,” he said, letting go of the reins, “but are you listening?”

Lorellan’s only answer was to jerk the horse around, and kick it into a gallop. Anger burned inside him, as he charged down the first, long slope of the road leading to the edge of the duke’s lands. He didn’t look back.

The dark man watched him go. When the freeman’s horse was seen topping the next rise, he noted that it had slowed to a canter. The dark man sighed, and crossed to where his own horse waited. With an easy movement of his hand, he unhitched it and lifted the reins over its head, then, with a move no less graceful than those before it, he swung himself into the saddle.

The freeman’s trail stood out clearly against the rain-softened ground. The bounty hunter kicked his horse into a slow canter, and rode after his potential prey. Somehow, he didn’t think the freeman was going to comply with his master’s wishes.


* * *


Ahead of him, Lorellan allowed his horse to settle into a trot. With an effort, the freeman forced his mind away from the anger that had encompassed him earlier.

Now was not the time for the heat of rage. Now was the time for a cool head, and for long-laid plans to be set in motion. He glanced over his shoulder.

The road behind him was empty. Still, he drew the horse to a momentary halt, shivering as though the fingers of an unseen gaze crawled up and down his spine.

This time he half-turned in the saddle to make sure he was alone. The road and the surrounding fields remained stubbornly devoid of pursuit. Relief at the sight lifting his spirits, Lorellan nudged the horse into a walk and continued on.

This time, he focussed forward, searching for the message point, a copse of trees that Daniel called the Dryad’s Grove. Lorellan looked for it as he rode; Daniel had said that the grove stood beside the road, a natural resting point for travellers, full of shade, and green and leafy against the dust.

Lorellan rode carefully up the next rise, letting the horse catch its breath. When he got to the top, he relaxed to see the trees standing together below him. Even from this distance, he could feel the strangeness, and he remembered it from when he, too, had worked the fields.

The memory made him smile. Shaded and green the grove might be, but no traveller he knew of had ever accepted its invitation. Trust Daniel to choose such a place for the message.

He looked away from the clustered trees. Daniel wouldn’t be far away, and Lorellan wanted a chance to see his friend and mentor, once again. A mile distant, he noticed the familiar, lone figure of a man standing on another rise, in a paddock parallel to the road. The man was tending a flock of the duke’s sheep, and didn’t acknowledge Lorellan’s presence.

Sighing, Lorellan rode towards the grove. He knew Daniel would keep his promise, knew the man was waiting and watching with the sheep.

How he wished he could say something to his old friend, but he knew he couldn’t. If anyone saw them, it would be the death of many. Instead, Lorellan forced his mind to the plan they had laid together, what seemed too many years ago.

He was aware there would be no turning back, once he entered the grove, but he knew he couldn’t live his life in slavery under the duke, and he knew he couldn’t let Megan down. The time for changing his mind had passed.

The horse gave a heavy sigh, as Lorellan slipped from its back. It made Lorellan chuckle, and he gave the beast’s neck an affectionate slap. It shook its head at him, and started to crop the grass beside the road.

Lorellan glanced, once more, over his shoulder before stepping into the shade beneath the trees. He saw no one besides the shepherd and his sheep, as he passed out of the sunlight. He saw nothing out of place, as the grove’s shadow closed around him.


* * *


The hunter did not intend to be seen. He followed the freeman at a leisurely pace. For the moment, he had no intention of capturing Cartwright. The man had done nothing wrong, so there was no price on his head. Until there was, the dark-clad bounty hunter was content to earn his retainer by watching and waiting as he’d been ordered.


* * *


Unaware of the man on his trail, Lorellan hid the message in the leaf-jammed fork of the oldest tree in the grove, and walked quickly back to his horse. He didn’t hear the whispering laugh that tickled the oak’s branches, or see the slender hand that took the note, and hid it deep inside the tree’s heart. Neither did he see the shadow that lay flat on the crest of the rise behind him, and watched him leave the shelter of the trees.


* * *


Daniel the Shepherd noticed the shadow, but gave no sign. To anyone watching, the sheep were his only concern. The shadow thought so.

It waited until Lorellan had ridden up and over the rolling slope of the road ahead, then it rode down to the copse. If it noticed the old shepherd tending the duke’s sheep, it ignored him. He was of no consequence.


* * *


Daniel waited until the bounty hunter had returned from the grove. All the while, he held his breath, and hoped the grove’s keeper had the sense to keep herself from view. It was not until the dark-clad shadow had re-emerged from the grove to follow Lorellan’s trail that the shepherd breathed a brief prayer of thanks.

He watched the bounty hunter ride away, then moved lightly down the slope and was not seen. The grove’s keeper gladly gave him the message, as well as good reason to blush, making an ancient suggestion that made his heart beat faster.

Silly creature! For something that had survived this long, she should... Daniel paused in his thoughts, and set his mind to the task ahead. Her comment kept him smiling, as he walked back to the sheep, and the absurdity of its compliment gave him the courage to do what needed to be done next.


* * *


Unaware of the shepherd’s visit to the grove, the dark-clad hunter stalked Lorellan through the afternoon, and then on into the greylit dusk. It followed him across the boundaries of the duke’s estate and, losing his tracks on the paved road that paralleled those boundaries, travelled close enough to watch Lorellan turn from the main thoroughfare, onto a gravel track leading to the man’s freehold.

The hunter saw the greeting Lorellan received, as his horse turned into the open yard in front of the homestead, and was satisfied. Now, he would find a place to watch and wait, and somewhere to camp for the night. The first portion of his task was complete.

He knew where the freeman lived.




NIGHT FLIGHT



A lantern shone in the window of the homestead as Lorellan rode up the drive. He saw Robert’s shadow briefly block the light, before the front door opened, and his brother came out to greet him.

Robert was tall and rangy, and his eyes were the same cloudy blue as Lorellan’s own. Reaching out, Robert laid a hand on Lorellan's bridle. The horse stopped and Lorellan groaned, his muscles creaking in protest as he slid to the ground.

As he landed, Robert passed him back the reins, and then fell in step as they led the tired animal towards the barn.

“How’d it go?” he asked.

Lorellan snapped a glare at him, before forcing himself to calm as he replied.

“I’m to serve the man ten years, give him any children born during those ten, and leave the estate with Meg, only after those ten,” he spat.

“And?” Robert asked.

“I’m leaving, tonight.”

“Leaving?” Robert was shocked.

“Tonight,” Lorellan repeated, as they led the horse into the barn.

“But, tonight?”

“Tonight, Robert.”

“What about the farm?”

“It’s yours. I did the paperwork last week.”

Lorellan grunted, as he lifted the saddle from the horse’s back. He slung it over the rack, aware of Robert leading the horse into its stall in bewildered silence. The silence continued, until the animal had been tended, and Lorellan let it last, until he had closed the lower half of the stall behind him.

“Let’s go inside,” he said. “I need to get my things.”

“You’re really going to do it, aren’t you?”

It was more a statement than a question, and Robert’s voice was soft with disbelief as he spoke. The bewilderment in his tone made Lorellan pause as they reached the barn door. Slowly, he turned and took his brother gently by the shoulders.

“Yes,” he said and Robert, meeting the blue-grey steel in Lorellan’s eyes, knew he meant it, and knew also that nothing would keep him from the plans he’d laid.

Still silent, he followed Lorellan out of the barn and into the night.

The haunting call of an owl startled them, but, when Lorellan looked in its direction, he saw nothing except a cool blot of shadow beneath the eaves of the barn. The call came again, as the two men reached the backdoor of the house, and Lorellan shivered.

Closing the door behind him, he couldn’t help thinking the owl wouldn't be the only one hunting tonight. He pushed that thought aside as Ranny, Robert’s wife, came to greet them.

“See if you can raise Carrick,” Lorellan told her, as he stepped out of her embrace.

Behind him, Robert nodded in agreement.

Ranny shot them a puzzled look, but she disappeared into the communications room behind the kitchen without a word. Lorellan raced up the stairs to his room to collect the small bag he’d packed.

Just in case, he thought wryly, as he scooped it up. I packed you just in case.

He turned, and pounded down the stairs as the sound of approaching jet engines caught his ear. Ranny and Robert were waiting at the door, and Lorellan had barely enough time to hug them goodbye, before a small flitter skittered down onto the drive.

With the pilot waving for him to hurry, Lorellan turned away from the only place that had ever been his own, and ran towards the flitter.

“Sorry about the rush,” the pilot yelled. “Megan doesn’t have much time, and we have even less.”

This last was shouted above the rising scream of engines, as the pilot pushed the throttle forward. He only just managed to pull the flitter up and over the barn roof as the power kicked in. Lorellan shut his eyes.

When he opened them again, they were travelling towards the Aristoc estates. Taking a deep breath, he sat back in his seat, focussing on the journey ahead.

He’d decided to flee to the Provinces on the Central Plains. There were agricultural cities there, where the duke had no control, and where, he hoped his skills as a farmer would be welcome. He also hoped that he and Megan would find safety in one of the farming conglomerates there.

The flitter sped swiftly over the distance separating his freehold from his love. If Lorellan’s plan had worked, Megan would be waiting for him in the clear space behind the slave village. If his plan kept working, the flitter would be able to touch down and take off again, before the guards could be raised.


* * *


The bounty hunter woke to the sound of approaching jet engines. At first he saw nothing, but then he caught sight of a small blot, moving, black on black, against the sky. He stared intently, his eyes straining until he could make out a small aircraft flying low and hard toward the freehold. Behind him, his horse sensed his tension and shifted uneasily at its tether.

The aircraft sound became the shape of a small flitter, once the hunter had raised his night glasses to his eyes. He frowned. While, his master often used the small aircraft for smuggling or private transport, he had not been informed of a flight tonight.

Curious, the hunter tracked its passage, noting its lack of running lights, as it dipped behind a stand of tall trees. The freeman’s farm, he thought, noting the direction, and he listened as the engines slowed.

When he thought it might have finished its run, and was no longer his concern, the engine note built, once more, to a scream, and the flitter leapt from behind the trees. This time, there was no mistaking the direction it took.

Observing it, the hunter smiled. Now the freeman was his to hunt, just as long as the guards at the estate didn’t catch him first. With a sigh, the hunter rose from his seat on the ground, rolled his bedding, and reached for the transmitter at his waist.


* * *


On the duke’s estates, Megan started at Daniel’s touch. She had been so busy scanning the sky, she hadn’t heard the old man approach.

“Guards, love, from the manse. Get down to the ’grass field, and wait the other side of the fence. Hurry, now, or Lorellan will have to leave you behind!”

Before Megan could open her mouth to ask him what or how, Daniel had gone. Glancing back at the road that led from the manse to the slave village, she could see the shapes of men coming down the hill at a run.

Megan didn’t hesitate any longer. She bolted for the field. Daniel would have been proud of her. She remembered to stay clear of the regular path, reasoning that, if she could see the guards against the white gravel of the road to the manse, they would see her against the pale sand of the path to the field.

She ducked into the shadows of the trees lining the path. All the time, her ears strained for the sound of jet engines, and she prayed Lorellan wouldn’t be too late.

Behind her, Daniel the Shepherd ran back to the village and into his house. Removing the straw mat from his hearth, he pushed a hidden panel on the fireplace and watched the stone slide to one side. Signalling for his wife to close the hearth behind him, Daniel dived down the stairs that led below their cottage.

As the darkness closed around him, he fumbled for the torch he kept on a shelf at the door. Its beam gleamed comfortingly across the cellar floor. Above him, he was sure he could hear the heavy tramp of boots as the guards checked the house. Pushing that thought aside, he returned to the task at hand, tuning the hidden transmitter to the flitter’s signal so he could send a warning to the approaching pilot.


* * *


Lorellan saw Carrick frown, and felt the craft tilt as the pilot altered its course. He saw the few lights in the cabin dim, and watched the pilot pull a pair of goggles over his eyes. Carrick acknowledged something over the radio, and began his descent.

At first Lorellan could see nothing in the blackness below, but then he caught sight of a brief flash of light at the edge of a breadgrass field. He watched the place where he’d seen it. The flash came again.

Carrick was already bringing the craft around, when Lorellan tapped him on the shoulder. Together their eyes sought the elusive flash. When it came a third time, the pilot brought the flitter down beside it in a gliding dive.

Megan leapt forward, and Lorellan heard shouts, suddenly raised from the direction of the village.

Trails of torchlight began bobbing down the hill towards them. The pilot started to lift the craft out of the field, just as Megan reached its side, and Lorellan leaned out of the cockpit, to grab Megan’s hands, and drag her aboard.

A flash of light singed the side of the flitter, as it wheeled away from the pickup site. The craft jerked madly as the pilot tried to avoid the next. At Lorellan’s feet, Megan grabbed the nearest seat, and held on. Somehow, Lorellan managed to loop a safety harness around her shoulders, before the flitter gave another evasive jerk. This time the attacking flash came, not from the ground, but from behind and above them, in the air. The pilot swore.

Lorellan groped for the blaster that most pilots he knew kept behind their seats. The pilot grunted his approval, as he reefed the flitter round in another violent twist. Wedging himself between the seat and the open door, Lorellan leant into open space, and took aim at one of the pursuing craft. Light flashed as he pulled the trigger, and the other flitter dodged wildly to escape it.

He was taking aim again when he felt something fidgeting at his belt. Turning his head, he saw Megan cinch the buckle tight on a second safety line. The flitter jerked as Carrick evaded another burst of fire from those in pursuit, and it was only the safety line that prevented Lorellan from falling into the darkness below.

Lorellan steadied himself, again, and took aim. The shot went wild as the flitter dived—and, again, the safety line prevented him falling. Lorellan grabbed for something more solid. He was still clinging to a hand grip at the top of the flitter’s door, when the craft jerked upwards in a steep climb.

Carrick shouted something about taking a seat, or holding on, as the pursuing flitters fell behind them, and Lorellan dropped into the nearest seat as the flitter kept upwards in an ever-steady arc. He clutched at the seat as the air began to thin, and Megan knelt on the floor gasping for breath. Inside the cockpit, lights began to flash, and alarms started a shrill keen of warning.

All Lorellan could do was watch in horror as the pilot’s eyes fluttered closed, and then the man growled in defiance and slammed the controls forward. The flitter responded in a gut-wrenching drop, ending the climb with a sudden plunge earthward. Breathing became easier, and the pilot smoothed the dive into a steady descent.

He caught the pilot’s brief glance and reassuring grin, then glanced forward when the grin suddenly morphed into a frown of concentration. A stand of trees rushed towards them out of the dark. Reaching out Lorellan dragged Megan off the floor, and into the seat beside him, gripping her hand and closing his eyes, as she cinched the seat’s harness tight across her body.

Lorellan’s stomach lurched as the flitter dodged beneath the pilot’s hands, and he opened his eyes to see what they were evading, this time. The onrushing buildings were worse than the trees. Lorellan closed his eyes again, until he felt the flitter sway beneath the controls and risked another peep. The flitter bucked and twisted, and then touched down.

Lorellan felt the grass beneath it give, and the tiny craft skated sideways towards a shed of neatly packed hay. Lorellan braced himself for the impact, but then he felt himself reefed in another direction before the flitter stopped.

He opened his eyes to the laughing face of the pilot, and watched as Megan unbuckled her harness and climbed out of the craft. Very slowly, Lorellan forced himself to do the same. The solid ground felt good beneath his feet.

“Safe travels,” the pilot told him.

He pointed at the top of the hill standing beyond the trees.

“There are a couple of horses waiting over the hill at Fisher’s Hole.”

Lorellan looked at him.

“Fisher’s Hole, but that’s...”

“Miles from the Aristoc Estate, I know,” Carrick finished for him. He slapped the metal side of the flitter fondly.

“She’s not exactly standard under the engine hatch, you know.”

Lorellan heard the pride in the man’s voice and acknowledged it with a nod.

“Matches the pilot,” he said, and watched Carrick redden.

In the distance a siren began to wail, reminding them of the need to hurry.

“Head east, then south,” Carrick instructed. “There’ll be help along the way.”

“East, then south,” Lorellan repeated.

“That’s right.”

The pilot was already climbing into the cockpit. As he settled the harness across him, he paused and leant out.

“You’d better hurry. You don’t want to be here when the welcoming committee arrives.”

“Thanks.”

“It’s that way,” he added, pointing, once more, at the hill.

“Thanks, again,” and Lorellan took Megan’s hand and began towing her up the long slope the pilot had indicated. When they were clear of the hayshed, they heard the flitter’s engines return to life. The siren repeated its wailing alarm and, at the sound of it, they began to run.

When they reached the top of the slope, Megan and Lorellan paused to look back. Searchlights swept the sky behind them and, for a moment, Lorellan thought he saw one of them catch the flitter in its arc.

The small craft twisted in a dive that brought remembered butterflies to his stomach, and then it disappeared into the safety of the night. The searchlights swept the sky in vain, after that. Lorellan led Megan down from the hill, the rising wail of the siren ringing in his ears.

The horses were waiting, tethered beneath a clump of trees beside a fishing jetty, which extended out into a small lake. They shied as Lorellan and Megan approached, only settling when the two humans stopped their headlong rush, and spoke softly to soothe them.

As soon as the beasts were calm, the runaways mounted and kicked them into a quick trot. Lorellan led Megan out of the copse and onto the road that would take them to the nearest village. If they hurried, they might make it out of the searchers’ arc.

The scream of approaching sirens told him they’d have to hurry. Abruptly, he left the road, and cut across a nearby field of breadgrass.

East and south, the pilot had said. East and south. Lorellan checked their direction by the rising moon, before turning his horse to follow its path. It was better than nothing.

Looking ahead, the freeman sought a point on the horizon and marked it as a goal, recognizing a heavily forested ridge from the map. It had been on one of the routes he’d memorised. If they could reach that before daylight, they might have a chance. He pushed his horse into a canter, hoping it would retain its footing on the spongy ground. Megan followed, more cautiously, behind.

On the other side of the field lay a network of access roads used by field workers at harvest time. Lorellan steered his horse onto one, and began to ride in earnest towards the promised shelter of the ridge. In front of them, buildings loomed, familiar, squat shapes in the darkness.

Familiar their shapes were, but their inhabitants were not. Lorellan carefully avoided these traps of humanity and rode on. He didn’t know whom to trust. The firm ground of the access road echoed dully beneath their horses’ feet, and the buildings faded behind them in the dark. Lorellan urged his mount into a gallop, a new sense of urgency pressing down on him.

Megan seemed to feel the urgency as well. She urged her mount forward, until Lorellan could feel it pounding, hard on the heels of his own. Somewhere, in the direction of Fisher’s Hole, hounds began to bay.

The two runaways pushed the horses even faster along the track, urging them with hands and feet until the baying began to fade. Only then did they allow the exhausted animals to drop back to a steady canter. In the dim distance, another long slope took shape.

Lorellan studied its dark curves, until he saw them descend into a jagged spur beside a similar, rising line. The shaggy heads of trees peered above the spur, offering shelter from the aerial searchers he was sure would fill the skies come dawn.

He pointed at the grove, and Megan smiled, her teeth flashing briefly in the dark. They would soon be there, and he felt her relief reach out to join his. The access road they were on connected to a main road, and they stopped to listen.

When nothing disturbed the gravelled stillness, they crossed, steering the horses into a fallow field on the other side. Beyond it, another field lay fallow and, beyond that, spread the openness of grazing fields.

They cantered towards the open grass of those fields, the dull thud of their horses’ hooves filling air around them. It almost covered the frantic scurryings caused by their passage, as well as the irate squeaks of protest as some rodent’s dinner was disturbed. There was a low, wooden fence separating the last field, and the half-moon overhead gave them enough light to jump it.

Cattle beside the fence exploded into a bellowing frenzy of panic, as the horses thundered into their midst, and Lorellan could see their bulky forms scramble up, before bolting to the relative safety of a few meters distant. There, the beasts stopped to watch these wild disturbers of their sleep.

Lorellan allowed his horse to slow to an exhausted walk, and guided it across the grazing field, looking over his shoulder as he went. Seeing Megan land behind him, and dawdle in his wake, Lorellan turned back to the cattle.

They huddled together, watching as he and Megan passed, but the night was cool, and, before long the beasts drifted back to their warm hollows in the grass. The occasional, low moo curled mournfully between them, all that remained to tell of their rude wakening.

Lorellan felt his mount trembling between his knees, and patted its neck. Looking ahead, he saw the range was looming nearer, and felt a rush of relief. It was a relief tempered by anxiety, however, since he wasn’t sure the horses would carry them that far. Glancing back, he caught Megan’s anxious look, as she, too, stroked her mount’s neck.

Grey had touched the edges of the sky, by the time they were within clear sight of the trees on the spur. Aware of the need to be under cover before dawn, the pair rode towards them.

Megan noticed it first—a slight movement at the edge of the trees. She pointed, but Lorellan saw nothing, so they pushed on. Their horses had stopped shivering, but now moved so mechanically they knew the animals were near the end of their endurance.

Lorellan felt like cursing his change of mind. If they had pushed on to the village, they would likely have had a good night’s rest and fresh horses, by now. He sighed. Then again, they might also have been enjoying the dubious hospitality of the local constabulary, while they awaited the arrival of Duke Aristoc the Third. At least the trees seemed to be getting closer.

Lorellan looked over at Megan. She seemed almost asleep in the saddle. He nudged her leg with the toe of his boot, and she gave a start, before returning his gaze with a sheepish grin. Together, they stared hopefully towards the trees.

Their lapse in attention had made them miss the appearance of a fast-moving vehicle. At first they refused to believe their eyes but, soon, the undeniable hum of its engines reached their ears, and its scorpion-like shape scuttled swiftly towards them.

This last was too much. Allowing their horses to reach an exhausted halt, the pair sat atop them, watching in disbelief, as the thing drew closer. It was a ground car that stopped only when it drew alongside. A hatch in the driver’s compartment popped open, and a bearded face looked out at them.

“What business do you have, disturbing my cattle and making runnels through a perfectly good crop of breadgrass?” the man demanded.

Lorellan and Megan just stared at him. He continued to glare back, until, finally, Lorellan spoke.

“C ... Can we discuss this under cover of the trees?”

The stranger glanced sharply at him, before appearing to notice the condition of the horses and the exhaustion of their riders. A hatch popped open in the passenger compartment, and the spindly figure of another man appeared in the doorway.

Seeing the horses, the spindly man climbed out of the car, and walked across to them. Without a word, he took a firm hold on their bridles.

“You might as well hitch a ride with me,” the self-proclaimed farmer said. “I’ll take you back to my farm, and you can get some rest before you move on. Turgot, here, will take care of the horses.”

Lorellan and Megan exchanged glances. The stranger glared at them in near exasperation.

“Well, are you coming, or do you want to be standing out in the middle of a field when the duke’s aerial sweepers start flying overhead?”

He paused at their looks of alarm.

“He put out an alert on you. He said two slaves were escaping, that they were armed and very dangerous.” He gave them both a hard stare. “I don’t see any weapons, and you both look about as dangerous as lost puppies. Now, do you want a ride or not?”

This decided them. Lorellan swung stiffly out of his saddle, and watched as Megan slid from hers. They left the two animals in the spindly man’s care, and walked slowly to the gaping hatch. The driver tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering column as they clambered inside.

A dim, blue light came on as the hatch closed behind them, and Lorellan looked around the passenger compartment. He decided their rescuer was no more a farmer, than he was the Duke of Aristoc. No freehold farmer he knew could afford a vehicle like this.

Megan leant tiredly against him. Glancing around, Lorellan noticed the passenger compartment was completely separate from the driver’s. A brief tug on the door handle revealed it was locked, and Lorellan sighed.

Leaning back against the seat, he wrapped his arms around Megan, and waited. Whatever trouble they had landed themselves in, it couldn’t be as bad as what they had just left.

He shut his mind to the nagging fear that it might be worse, and tried to work out what to do next. Gradually, the combined warmth of the cabin and Megan’s body nestled against him conspired with the long ride, and the soft mist drifting down from the ceiling, to make him sleep. His head rolled forward, and his mind drifted into oblivion.




OF RATS AND FOXES



‘Rat’ Grafton relaxed as he caught sight of Lorellan falling asleep. The girl had already drifted off, both unaware of the knockout gas unobtrusively flowing into their cabin. He allowed himself a small smile as he drove away.

This was easier than he had hoped. By the time the hounds arrived at the foot of the spur, he would be long gone with their quarry, and the disappearance would be yet another mystery to add to the reputation of the range. It was a reputation that would also account for the disappearance of a certain young duke, should he be in the ranks of those who pursued.

Rat had studied Lotharian Aristoc. Extensively. He felt sure the duke’s arrogance would demand his presence at the capture of the two runaways. Lotharian liked to gloat.

Rat laughed to himself. He was glad of the opportunity the freeman had brought into his grasp. If his spy satellite had not intercepted Lorellan’s communications to his pilot, Rat would have had to wait much longer for his meeting with Aristoc the Younger—and there was so much he needed to discuss with the man.

It was business, of course, and business which, if his sources were correct, would more than appeal to the duke. If it didn’t, Rat decided, there would be another duke gracing the Aristoc estates before the year was out.

He frowned as he remembered an encounter with the previous duke of Aristoc—Aristoc the Second. He should have known better than to try to cut that sort of deal with a man who had destroyed the criminal empire of his own father, and then had that father arrested by InterPlan Enforcement. Should have known better, but hadn’t. He hadn’t believed it, until it had been too late.

That interview had been conducted in the Aristoc Hall of Audience. It had been well before the first serfs were due to arrive, but, despite this, another had been present, and the duke had refused to send the man away.

That other had been the duke’s pet bounty hunter and personal bodyguard, Jesserak. Rat had guarded his words carefully, mindful of that other presence. Even so, the duke had barely heard the first and least illegal of Rat’s proposals, before sending Rat from the Hall with a thirty-minute start on the Enforcers. That start had been barely enough, and Rat seethed as he remembered it.

He had sworn, then, never to meet another on ground that was not his to control, and it was this oath that had delayed his meeting with Lotharian. With a quick twist of anger, Rat returned himself sharply to the present. He had been delayed long enough.

He would offer the same opportunity to the second duke’s son, as he’d offered to the father. The son, it was rumoured, had been the cause of the father’s disappearance and almost certain demise. Lotharian, the rumours claimed, dreamt of rebuilding his grandfather’s empire.

Rat remembered how his first offer had been received, how the second duke’s eyes had narrowed as soon as Rat had mentioned the nature of the offer. Angry color had risen to the man’s face, and Rat had been ordered to leave the duke’s estates immediately. The bounty hunter, Jesserak, had trailed him to the edge of the edge of the estate before returning to his master.

Rat remembered it all, and hoped the rumours he’d heard about the third duke of Aristoc were true. If they were, and the young man truly intended to rebuild his grandfather’s empire, then the times ahead would be sweet ones, indeed, for the Rat.

He allowed his mind to dream about those possible times, his dreams becoming more glamorous as he let his mind wander. He resented the radio’s crackle when it rasped for his attention, and his response showed traces of annoyance.

“Yes?”

The caller was unrepentant.

“About time! Where were you? Off in dreamland again?”

“What’s the message?”

Rat ignored the barb. He’d deal with his disrespectful henchman later. The sarcasm disappeared from Turgot’s voice as he gave his report.

“It’s working. They’ve discovered the horses, and are scouring the gully. You were only just in time, boss.”

This last was said with enough admiration to calm Rat’s ruffled feelings. He smiled as he replied.

“Of course, I was. It’s what I do best. Out.”

The radio remained obediently dead, even though Rat stared at it, daring it to speak again.

Of course he’d cut it fine. It was his trademark; last minute jobs. Not that his passengers in the back were ever going to know.

Innocent as lambs, they were. And lambs they were going to stay. He would lead them to slaughter like any other good Judas sheep, even if he would rather have traded the girl elsewhere. Business was business, after all.

Rat drove the ground car through the last of the dividing range between the Aristoc estates and the next large dukedom. The small wedge of freehold land between the two properties was negligible, but it was sufficient for his needs—for now.

The monitor showed that Lorellan was beginning to stir, drifting in and out of his drug-induced sleep, and Rat yawned. He was beginning to feel tired himself, and thanked the darkened stars the plantation wasn’t far ahead.


* * *


Lorellan woke fully as the ground car’s engines vibrated to silence beneath him. After a few minutes, the passenger hatch popped open, and the bearded face of their rescuer peered in.

“Well, this is it,” he announced. “I’ll let you off here. There’s a house to the east, not too far away. I decided to take you folks a mite further than my own, humble shack, seein’ as you was already asleep.”

Oh, thanks.” Lorellan felt suspicion stir, but kept his questions to himself. Questions brought answers, and he was pretty sure the answers to these questions would bring trouble, and trouble was something they had enough of already.

“Come on, Megan,” he said, gently nudging her awake.

“It’s time to go,” he explained, as she groaned in protest. She stopped complaining as soon as she woke enough to remember where she was, climbing quickly out beside him. Rat handed them a package.

“It’s food,” he said as he clambered back into the pilot’s seat.

“Thanks again,” Lorellan called, but the ground car’s engines drowned out their saviour’s reply, and the only answer he received was a wave from the cockpit as the craft disappeared through the trees.

“What now?” Megan asked, looking up at him.

Lorellan glanced at her, then at the package, then back.

“Let’s eat,” he said and they sat down under one of the trees at the edge of the clearing.

The food was obviously their rescuer’s lunch, and Lorellan wondered guiltily if the man had gone without. It was a guilt that quickly disappeared when he remembered his rucksack, still in the passenger compartment, and glared angrily after the ground car. The food in the package was a poor exchange.

When they had finished, he stuffed the wrapper into a pocket and led Megan in the direction of the house their rescuer had mentioned. As he walked, Lorellan pondered on their chance meeting. He remembered Megan looking after the disappearing ground car, and wondering who their rescuer was. He also remembered telling her it didn’t matter.

Now, he had a nasty feeling that it did matter, that it mattered very much. He couldn’t shake the thought that their survival depended on knowing just why their mysterious benefactor had been sitting out on a deserted spur on a night when they’d needed him to be there.

He’d first thought it might be one of Carrick’s contacts, but the man didn’t fit the part. He stopped. Megan tugged impatiently on his hand. Lorellan shook his head and frowned.

“No, Meg,” he said, and she stilled, looking up at him with a puzzled stare.

“What’s the matter, Lorellan?” she asked.

“I don’t think we should go to that house,” he told her.

“Why not?” she asked.

“I think we may be heading into a trap,” he said, and tasted truth in the words.

Megan bit back a scornful retort. Her face clouded, as she thought about what he was saying.

“I think you could be right,” she agreed. “No one should have been out on that range last night. No matter how much they listened to the duke’s private channels. What sort of neighbour does that, anyway?”

Lorellan nodded, then chose a direction that ran both away from the cottage and the direction the ground car had taken.

“Let’s try this way.”

Megan shrugged, and followed him.

Their detour was cut abruptly short by a length of stainless-steel fencing. Its tall, spiked poles rose like a row of narrow pines just beyond the trees in the plantation they’d been walking through. In all, the fence stood around ten-feet tall. Connecting the poles, and filling the gaps between them, was a fine mesh of wire. Lorellan studied the obstruction before gently pulling Megan away from it.

“Don’t touch it,” he told her.

Megan withdrew the hand she had stretched inquiringly towards the fence.

“It’s electrified,” Lorellan explained, pointing to the connections and extra wires.

With a sinking feeling, he looked up, his eyes searching the top of the fence.

“Dammit,” he said, softly, and drew back from what he saw there.

“Scanners!”

His voice grated over the word, as he pointed a second time, and Megan drew back with him. Neither were happy to see the light on the scanner nearest them begin blinking an alert.

Lorellan dragged her along the fence until they were some distance from it. Too soon they heard the approaching thrum of skimmer engines, and hurriedly wormed their way into a thick clump of bushes. There, they stayed as still as they could, and hoped.

The thrum of engines grew louder and nearby leaves rustled at the skimmer’s approach. Fallen resin pine needles swirled, scenting the air as the vehicle passed over them. The two runaways held their breath.

“What do you mean, ‘It’s probably them’?” a voice was heard to complain. “Rat only called twenty minutes ago.”

“The drop-off point wasn’t far from here,” another voice replied. “Lorellan Cartwright doesn’t strike me as being a total fool. He probably got suspicious. Wouldn’t that be right, Mister Cartwright?”

The direct question made Lorellan stiffen. He stared curiously through the concealing leaves as two skimmers came into view. Their drivers halted a few meters away from the blinking scanner, and one of them dismounted.

Approaching the fence, he took a palm-sized remote from his belt and pointed it at the black box on top of the pole. The sensor light stopped flashing. Ignoring it, the man knelt to examine the ground below, seeming unaware that Lorellan and Megan studied him from their hiding place.

The man wore the typical green of a plantation forester, the symbol of his estate on his shoulder and above his left breast. It had a black background with the super imposed, orange head of a fox at its centre. The two runaways remained, frozen, in the bushes.

They had heard rumours about the Fox Clan. It was said to be a crime lord’s holding, and none of the rumours were savoury. The too-convenient appearance of their rescuer became more sinister as time passed, but the jigsawing pieces still refused to fall into place.

They watched as the Fox clansman paused in his study of the ground. The man’s head turned unerringly towards them as his gaze followed the faint scuff marks they had left in their flight for cover.

A sudden alertness tightened his body, and he straightened, brushing the clinging dirt from his knees. When he spoke, he addressed them directly.

“Okay, you two. Come out of there, and slowly.” His tone was a command, and it was obvious he was expecting trouble. He seemed to be trying to pierce the bushes surrounding their hollow, using just his gaze.

They gave him no reply.

The clansman was patient for all of a minute, and then he drew the pistol at his hip, and pointed it towards them.

“This is your last warning,” he said.

When they maintained their silence, he fired.

Lorellan had just enough time to pull Megan flat against him, and hug them both to the ground before the gun crashed, and a bullet whistled through the place they’d been. The sound of their movement could not be disguised. The clansman looked towards it, eyes narrowed to slits, teeth bared in anticipation.

“Coming out?” His voice was soft in its invitation, but his query was a clear order.

Lorellan was aware of Megan’s terrified grip on his hand as he replied.

“Coming.”

It was all he could do to hold the quiver of anger from his tone, but his bitterness still came through. The clansman’s expression shifted to one of smug satisfaction, and he held his pistol almost casually as they emerged. Despite this, Lorellan had only to look at their captor’s face to guess the speed that pistol could be brought into play. He held his peace.

“Come then,” the man ordered, and the tone of his voice made their blood run cold.

Lorellan pushed the covering shroud of leaves and branches to one side, and led Megan through. As they stepped into the clearing, he allowed the foliage to snap back.


* * *


Matthen of the Fox Clan eyed the two prisoners.

Lorellan was of average height, and strong from years of labour in the fields. His brown hair was limp with sweat and dirt, and the grey-blue eyes that returned his stare looked defiant, but tired. Matthen had Clansman Ditan search the man for weapons.

Lorellan submitted quietly to the search, holding his hands away from his sides. He tensed as Ditan turned his attention to Megan, but a discreet cough from Matthen reminded him of where he stood, and of the pistol that could kill them both. Frustrated and angry, Lorellan continued to stand, glaring, until the clansman had finished his search.

When Ditan signalled the all-clear, Matthen ordered the pair to follow the clansman, waiting until they had fallen in behind Ditan’s skimmer. Stationing his own skimmer behind them, Matthen signalled Ditan to lead them along the trail to the Fox Clan’s base.

At first, Lorellan followed the lead skimmer almost blindly. It took several steps, before he raised his head, and started taking note of the forest around them. Matthen watched him, the faintest of smiles curving his lips.

“That won’t do you any good, Master Cartwright,” he murmured.

He caught the slight shift of movement as Lorellan registered the sound of his voice and tried to catch what he’d said. Matthen quietly changed his pistol for a less deadly stunner. He’d brought them alive this far; he’d bring them alive all the way. There was no reason to risk killing them in an escape attempt.

Lorellan showed no sign of resistance, save for the watchful turn of his head, as he tried to mark the trail in his mind. Matthen was glad the base den was not much further. They couldn’t afford to give away too much detail on the den approaches.

He shrugged the worry aside. What did it matter anyway? The man was hardly going to escape and, where he was going, no one was interested in the approach to some obscure Fox den. They were much too interested in dying.





THE WATCHER AND THE ELF



Dying was not something that concerned the Watcher. It was interested only in detail, and detail of Fox den approaches in particular. It sprang lightly to another branch, using it as a bridge over the obstructive fence. Its claws made no sound as they dug lightly into the soft bark of the resin pine beyond, and it scampered after the procession below with silent elation.

The watcher sensed its master’s pleasure at its progress. Never had any of its predecessors come this far. Never had any of its predecessors made this much ground in the discovery of the Fox Clan’s eastern base. Never had its master been so close to gathering the information he needed to avenge himself on the clan. It tucked its furled wings closer to its spine, and trotted after the Fox clansman and his prisoners.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-38 show above.)