Some people actually liked riding, but not Kantal. Definitely not him. Some people must have immunity to the pain and discomfort, but for him it was like a form of slow torture. The act of sitting in a saddle started a steady descent in comfort, each moment sliding immaculately into the more painful next. And the flavours of punishment were diverse too: there were aches; sharp pains; dull throbs; numbness; those terrible pins at the other end of the spectrum. The only remedy was to stand in the stirrups, cocking one’s arse at the riders behind, but even then legs would grow heavy. The saddle was always calling, and so therefore was the punishment.
The only man riding ahead of him turned in his direction. The look was disapproving. He went stiff with unease, pain gnawing at his concentration. He was still in awe of this man, even despite the years behind them. He straightened himself as far as his discomfort would allow, ready for the reprimand.
“Are we boring you, General?”
The authority in the stare was unsettling. He was not used to that look, being as he was a favourite of the man. He took a moment, breathing through his nose. No need to seem awkward, even if he was.
“Of course not, your Majesty. I am in awe of your wise direction. I only exhaled at my unfortunate discomfort.” The words came out smoothly enough, but each one grated in his throat. He was unused to such delicacy, and his common accent butchered the finesse.
“Do not oil your words, Kantal. It doesn’t suit you. What’s really wrong?”
There was a snigger at his back; the twitter of a dozen scheming aristocrats. He was the one out of place here, the commoner amongst the elite, but he had earned the right. No, he had more than earned the right. The King, his master, put up with him because he was worth putting up with. Or that’s what he hoped. He looked to the powdered fools and sneered. When he turned back, the King still glared, waiting on the response.
“My arse hurts.”
There was just the tiniest elevation in the right side of the King’s lip, his blond moustache tilting. But the authority didn’t leave the man’s face, and the twittering fools gasped from behind. It didn’t take long for them to start whispering against the vulgar words. They would be calling him a fool, uncouth, and a piece of gutter scum. He wasn’t good enough to grace their company, let alone lead their army. And it was true, wasn’t it? It had always been true. Why had he never seen this before? The King stared on with stony authority, displeasure rampant on his face. And then his face contorted. It was too much. He gulped.
The royal mouth opened wide, the eyes closed, and the King let out an almighty roar. When he’d finished laughing, he wiped the spittle from his lips and smiled.
“I do so love your honesty. My arse hurts too.”
The peacocks were muttering under their collective breath, which was pleasing. He grunted in pleasure. He loved getting one over those prim bastards.
“It’s not natural to straddle such beasts.”
The King dropped back, moving alongside. “Maybe not, but Man has been doing it long enough. And besides, how else would we make this journey?”
That was true enough. He looked about, taking in the surroundings. To his right was a sharp mountain range; stark against the pan flat lands about them. In all other directions the scrubbed brown plains of Mikaeta stretched away, a subtle heat haze rustling the horizon. But in the direction of Friendly, to his right, the mountains stood like sentinels, protecting the luscious lands behind. That was Ahan, a glorious gem amongst a world of decay, but that land had also been snatched away from Delfin’s legacy; from Delfinia’s present King; and therefore from him as-well. He wanted to retake Ahan. It was an obsession.
But you couldn’t beat a mandahoi, and so Ahan remained without their grasp.
And yet that was what he was out to change. It was the very reason they were here, making this journey. Five hundred years had passed without a noticeable dent in the barricade that was Ahan’s borders, and he was the latest to try. But he would succeed where all others had failed. He would succeed. The Mandahoi were a plague sent forth by the invaders who now ruled in Ahan, but he was the antidote and he would overcome the odds.
Or at the very least he was willing to try, and he had his own plans. They were good plans too.
And therein lay the dream: to drive the Mandari invaders back into the sea. It was a good dream, and it grabbed his attention right then. Only his king pulled him back.
“Sorry, your Majesty.” What were they talking about? Oh yes, of course. The pleasures of riding. An unfortunate necessity. “I agree, unfortunately. Horses are a necessary discomfort.”
The King slapped him on the back and assented with a soft grunt. He could hear the renewed disappointment from the ’cocks behind, and he sniggered. The King seemed to miss his immaturity, or at the very least ignored it.
“A horse is a fine friend in combat too. Let’s not forget that.”
An image flashed through his head; a wraith in a whirlwind of steel. That was the untouchable enemy; the plague of the Mandari; the Grey. Horses were no good there.
“Not against the Mandahoi, your grace.” Because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi. His tongue slid over his front teeth, to the sharp relief of the gold replacement. His mind wandered, only to be torn back again. By his king.
“Indeed. Most weapons are useless against that particular foe. Most nights I wonder how we’ll ever overcome them.”
This was his territory, but even he had reservations. Against the Grey, confidence only accelerated the downfall.
“There are ways, but they are,” he licked his lips, “hard.”
A grunt from his king. There was little more to say on the matter. Instead, they could dream of the wealth that lay beyond those mountains. A wealth outside their grasp. Or was it? His plan was a good one, even if all the pieces weren’t yet secure. And hopefully, most of the details would be set when this journey was over. It was a good plan.
“You do trust me, don’t you?”
The monarch stared wistfully to the barren plains of Mikaeta; enemy territory. Well, perhaps enemy was too much, but not friends. Not anymore. They were civil neighbours once – Delfinia had once even been a part of the greater Mikaetan Empire – but that civility had long passed, sliding with the decay of this once famous civilisation. Mikaeta was now in a sorry state, and it dawned that this was the nation they sought the help of. Was that a good idea? They were here to reinstate a rickety alliance. He looked around, and the reality of the challenge sank in. This had seemed easy when he’d conjured the idea, but not anymore. It was a good plan, but the pieces were flaking. There was work to do yet.
And to emphasise the challenge, they started past a great rent in the mountains of the Adunas Encolae. It was the entrance to a valley called the Bloody Gash. That was where he had been made, and it was also the way into Ahan and all its wealth. But that was still a hard way, and he gulped. Unfriendly eyes would be all over them as they passed that valley, but the convoy held open hands. They would not be endangered.
He looked upon the wretched defences that the sorry Mikaetans still barracked, balking at their neglected state. Flags hung shredded and limp; outposts sat in disrepair; and any sight of metal was accompanied by riotous rust. It was depressing to look upon. So many years of defeat contributed to that, and it was always defeat. It was always defeat.
But no! Not this time. His plans would not end in that same way. He couldn’t fail. That was why he was making this trip. With his king.
But his king had still not responded. Was he truly trusted?
“Of course I trust you, Kantal. Of course I do. I only wonder. For five hundred years, we have been trying to lever that limpet from our territories, and yet five hundred years have passed without success. To say that I am confident would be a lie.”
He had a point. Many had tried to break the steely defiance of the Mandari, but none had succeeded. There were moments of fleeting gain, but ultimately it had been a story of utter defeat. Ahan remained in the hands of the invaders, and he was only the latest to try to reclaim it. That was still daunting.
“I am not confident either.” After all; you couldn’t beat a mandahoi.
His king turned to him, alarm on his face. “If anyone should be confident―”
“Your grace, forgive me, but confidence with respect the Mandahoi is entirely misplaced. Remove the Mandahoi from my path, and then I will be confident.”
The King clucked to himself. “Yes indeed. That is why we are here, after all.”
“Yes, your Majesty. We are here to make sure that we can take the chance.”
How they would earn the chance and make sure that the Mandahoi were kept contained was still to be determined, but he would not broach that subject now. His king was already staking a lot. They needed allies.
After all; you couldn’t beat a mandahoi. At least, not without the appropriate resources.
When they came around the angle of the mountains, Mother Bright was dipping towards the horizon. The creamy stone of the Beha Lomal glowed with a fiery quality as Mother bathed the mountains in her tiredness, and his breath caught. It was stunning. The sky beyond the mountains was darkening, a rich bruising punctured by the steadily appearing stars. Shadows were long, and the dry scrub absorbed the rays of the tiring sun-god. The effect was so stark that it seemed that his horse stepped over burning coals. He scanned the roots of the mountains, sure he must see his goal, tingling at the prospect. But the legendary city didn’t appear, and his stomach knotted.
But then it did appear, looming out of the shadows, dominating the scene. He shuddered. It was a marvel of the past, a relic of the old Mikaetan power, and it was incomparably daunting. He hunkered down upon the back of his horse. Even its name brought a man out in a sweat.
Every time he came to this place, he wondered if this was how the legendary Elai had felt. The fortress was a marvel and a nightmare, and the very definition of authority. But it was also a place of poisonous politics, and this time he was to be at the centre of that storm. He would rather face a mandahoi.
And you couldn’t beat a mandahoi.
Then again, you couldn’t beat Maegwyn either. She was impregnable.
It was a fortress of impossible proportions, embedded in the elbow of two mountains. A great ring formed the periphery, many stories high and palace-thick. A small city in itself. Those walls were the most daunting siege prospect in the known world, but within those encircling arms was a city of wealth and purpose. A prize of value. And that wasn’t the greatest part either. The keep at the rear of the complex soared into the sky, numerous floors spearing rebelliously into the heavens. He approached the fortress and found his head tipping at the sight. It was almost as if the tower surpassed the mountains themselves. The wind whipped, and he shivered. And yet his cloak was thick.
Yes, this was definitely how Elai would have felt. Terror and awe. It was catching.
The city-fortress was a symbol of Mikaetan history, but it was no longer obedient to that authority. Maegwyn was now garrisoned by Gorfinian tyranny, and that nation – the nation of Gorfinia – formed the third corner of the old Tri-liance; a partnership which he was hoping to reinstate. Maegwyn was geographically the natural place for negotiations, being as it was a central location, but the use of the fortress did offer the ever-difficult Gorfinians an upper-hand in discussions. It was their threshold that he would be crossing. But he couldn’t worry about that. He had to trust in the negotiating skills of his king. They needed friends, and these were the best options. He gulped.
The task seemed harder with every passing moment. Five hundred years had gone by without a victorious step being taken towards Ahan. So why did he think he could do the unthinkable? It was a good plan, he was sure of it. It was well-considered and thorough. But would that be enough? He could only hope.
The gargantuan gates, themselves at least four stories in height, opened just a crack. It was so subtle that only keen eyes would spot it, but he had keen eyes. Soon true darkness would creep over the landscape, but in the final dregs of light, riders could be seen galloping at pace. The Gorfinians were coming. He tensed, but there was no reason for that. They were invited after all. Besides, what chance was there of a Gorfinian betraying the trust of his allies? He laughed, struggling to hide it as a cough, and his king flicked a stern look in his direction.
“Sorry, your Majesty. Just a private joke.”
There was no easing of his king’s rebuke this time.
“Keep it to yourself, General. The Gorfinians are not famed for their sense of humour.” The king paused, presumably to let his words sink in. The ruler had an uncanny ability to make threats stick, and this was no exception. He gulped, but fortunately, that was the end of the unpleasantness. “The doormen have come to greet us. Let us meet them with open palms.”
And with that, the king sped off with his chief banner-men, leaving Kantal to ponder the wisdom of his plan. Many had tried, and all had failed. Why would he be any different?
After all, you couldn’t beat a mandahoi.
This was illustrious company indeed. It was a wonder that he had managed to retain his composure. Or had he? He was rubbing his sweaty hands together. No. The nerves had got to him.
He would rather face a mandahoi.
“Lord King, we are grateful for your invitation.”
His king was leading proceedings – the greater of the two men where negotiations were required. He would probably be utterly impotent if he tried to speak in any case, such was his state. He wasn’t sure his nerves would permit a coherent sentence. He tried muttering under his breath, but the result was not heartening. He kept his head lowered, peering only occasionally from his cover. It was the most comfortable he could make himself, but it was not good. This was truly an impenetrable problem, a challenge beyond his means. Thank the Father his king was here to support him.
No, not support. His king was here to lead. He was definitely subservient in this place.
The ruler of Delfinia, his king, sat at the far end of the table, to the right of their host. And opposite his king, to the left of their host, was a man of grand proportions. And that was the ‘tri-liance’, those three men. Or at least it would have been many centuries ago. Not anymore. But he was here to reinstate that bond. He rubbed his sweaty hands together and looked at his lap. How would he do this?
He and another were the only others in seated attendance – five places taken in total – and yet the table would seat thirty. The vast chamber was oppressive, which did nothing to settle him. And then there was the attire. The damned costumes.
A man in a deep hooded cloak – near-black; wool of some sort; very austere – leaned towards their host. If anything, the host’s cloak was even plainer than his servant’s, but that was expected. This was the tyrant himself; the ruler of Maegwyn. He was the Hooded King of Gorfinia, and no-one ever heard him speak. As the Hooded King ceased his apparent whispering, the aide straightened and relayed the message.
“My Lord would like to remind you that you invited yourselves.”
A shiver went through him. This was certainly not a place of friends, but he hadn’t expected such immediate spite. His king seemed undeterred, thankfully.
“Of course, Lord King Gorfin. Then we are grateful for your hospitality.”
The King’s hood was so deep that it projected to near elbow length from his face. What of the inner-cowl could be seen was only black, and his features were therefore entirely concealed. That was the fear of the Hooded King: no-one knew what lay inside. With that simple mechanism, he kept a kingdom in check. Fear was a wonderful thing, and he shivered. It was certainly working on him.
He gulped and noted that the hood of the servant was also very deep. It was a badge of honour for these strange Gorfinian people; the depth of the hood determining social standing. So even the servant was probably a high-up aide, or perhaps even Gorfinian nobility; whatever that involved. He gulped once more, forcing himself to stop fiddling with his hands. As he looked away from the Gorfinian horrors, he came face to face with the man opposite him. Another hood and another cloaked existence. It cut right through him and forced his hands to fidget once more. He sank lower in his chair, head bowing instinctively; as if to hide his face. Everyone else seemed to be hiding their faces, albeit in hoods. Why not him? Damn the attire.
The man opposite him was, in many ways, more intimidating than the Hooded King. And worse than that: this freak was here at his invitation. This man had ways, which was why he was present, but with that usefulness came a shroud. But in this poisonous atmosphere he fit like a pair of greaves and seemed at perfect ease. The bastard.
A tap grabbed his attention, and he turned to see the aide lean in once more. When the hooded assistant pulled away, the weight of expectation paralysed him. What flavour of spite would this be?
“My Lord asks if you are in need of refreshment?”
He exhaled and pulled his hand from the belt he’d been fiddling. His king nodded on both of their behalf, and with the subtle elevation of the Hooded King’s hand, curtains were thrown aside to reveal a battalion of servants. They scurried from the edges of the room, turning the vast table into an exquisite example of casual feasting. When the transformation was complete, the only stretch of polished bone that remained uncluttered was the section that held the wide map of the near world. Yes indeed; the table was made of the bone of some beast, and a big beast at that. He shivered again.
But despite that, the room was incredible. It was taller than most houses, lined with pillars, and draped with a host of varying but equally dour family banners. At the far end, behind the Gorfinian King, the room was entirely open; bare to the inner-circle of Maegwyn. The views from the chamber were frankly incredible, and he thought he could even see to the northern lands of Rhagastos. This citadel was the old centre of the Mikaetan Empire at its greatest, and it was also the place where Delfin had challenged her father and splintered the country that he now served. The place reeked of history, incredible stories infecting every part of the room, and this fact crawled all over him. He was an imposter in this place.
If he needed any other reason to sweat, then the sheer weight of the surroundings would do it. Unfortunately, none of the other guests seemed to share his nerves. He was the one who was out of place.
As proceedings lagged and pleasantries were forced, it was actually the man to the left of their host who twitched the most. But what did this man have to be nervous about? He wore an over-elaborate crown of dubious construction, and he fidgeted with a plethora of rings, each one housing jewels that appeared to be of great value. He was a large man, and as one of those in attendance without a hood, Kantal could take in his features. He was softer than expected.
“A fine spread, Lord Gorfin.”
As the man spoke, his chin quivered. It was not the sign of a strong leader. His face was smooth and unblemished; his cheeks rosy like a virgin’s. His eyes danced with something sour, and every time he spoke, the tone was edged with deep-rooted discontent. He portrayed power through his dress and his actions, but he could not hide his weakness – not truly. This man was the polished symbol of Mikaetan decay; he was the Emperor. But still, he had no reason to be nervous. Not here.
Then it struck him: this was the seat of his ancestors. He wasn’t nervous, he was angry. The Hooded King was sitting in his seat.
The servants continued to scuttle about, darting back and forth from the wings of the room whilst conversation continued around them. Fear was a powerful tool indeed. He gulped again, and the man opposite sniggered. Damn the bastard. He straightened his back and drew his attention back to the head of the table. The hooded aide finally pressed the direction of the discussion.
“Your Majesty, lord of the magnificent lands of Delfinia, what is it we can help with?”
Everyone in the room knew why they were here, but it appeared that the Gorfinians wanted to labour the point. Only the Mikaetan Emperor seemed oblivious to the forced tension, gluttonous as he was upon the spread before him, his eyes darting jealously.
In response to the question, the King of Delfinia wiped his own mouth, removing an escaped dribble of wine. Then he stood to address the audience; to share the plan. It seemed rather formal, but then what did he know? This was not an arena in which his particular skillset flourished.
As the King of Delfinia passed on his way to the map, he offered the slightest touch on the shoulder. The unexpected interaction cut right through him, and his awareness of the other participants’ critical gaze was heightened. He wanted this over, and he wanted it over soon. This was not his territory. He dropped his head once again. He would rather be hidden.
“We come asking for assistance. We come for your help.”
The statement was simple, clear, but in a room-full of vipers, it was guaranteed to shock. The Emperor slammed a flabby fist onto the table, and loosed his objection. And bizarrely, that wobbly strike struck even harder than the sharp steel of a mandahoi could. The Emperor may be flabby and soft, but he was still an emperor. He was of the line of Villas, and that was a great line indeed.
“And why should we offer you help? What has Delfinia ever done for us, apart from splintering our great union in the first place?”
His king stumbled over his attempt to counter the Emperor’s verbal assault. “Your Excellency, if you please. Will you let me explain―”
“What sort of help is it that you’re after? I have an idea, but please elaborate.”
This was the worst of it. It was like asking a cripple for a leg-up.
“We want military support.”
“Ha! I have a mind to leave now.” The Emperor rose from his seat, but the greed in his eyes betrayed the false intentions. He was ushered back by the soothing palm of the Hooded King, but it was really an unnecessary measure given the preposterous transparency of the Emperor’s feint. “We have pleaded for assistance from Delfinia for centuries, and what have we received? Nothing. Not even a damned response. Do not forget that it is Mikaeta that still holds the flood of the Centro from your gates. Never forget this.”
The King fought this corner well. “And do not forget, Emperor, that it is Delfinia that keeps you free of the Burnt People. We too have borders to hold.”
“The Burnt People are nothing compared to the Centro―”
The Hooded King raised a hand, and his aide coughed. It was eerie. “Please. Let the King of Delfinia speak.”
The Emperor nestled back into his well-cushioned chair, firing a spiky glance across the table whilst ramming more food into his mouth. But the Gorfinian King’s head did not even move, and there was no sign of emotion. That was the power of the hood; it was all-concealing. That was the power of Gorfin.
“Thank you, Lord. As I was saying, we request your military support for an assault on Ahan.” There was a disrespecting snort from the Emperor, but his king did not react. He would let the plan speak for itself. The all-important plan.
This was his plan, his genius, and he tingled at the beautiful details. He hoped these powerful men would see it the same way. He was being laid out for all to see, and it thoroughly discomfited him. He was desperate for a positive exchange, but he was at the mercy of his king’s bargaining capabilities.
“We have established a plan of immense merit, but what we have in ingenuity, we lack in resources. However, with your help, we believe that we can make the move that will crack that nut. We believe that we can take Ahan.”
He was sweating. His hands pumped uncontrollably, and he was mouthing along with his king. These were his words.
But the Emperor’s response was at best dismissive, whilst the Gorfinian king remained silent as ever. Intentions laid out, it was time for the challenge. He wanted to crawl under the table, even though the attention was not upon him.
It was the Emperor who shifted first. “And how many have tried in the past? Ahan has been a locked realm for five hundred years, and yet you come here with promises of success. How naive. You do realise that we three nations once formed an alliance, but even with such combined authority, we could not prevail.”
“Yes indeed, and we shall form a tri-liance once more, but this time with success. Please, I implore you to entertain the proposal at the very least.”
The Emperor opened his mouth, but it was left gaping when the Gorfinian King interrupted with a hand. He leaned into his aide, who straightened and drew the attention of his king.
“Then what makes you think that you have a successful design where all others have failed?”
“Because I believe in the man who came up with it.”
Oh no – that wasn’t part of his speech. The King had all the facts, so why would he alter the focus? He could now sense the lingering eyes upon him, and he dropped his head further. Was it possible to force one’s head into one’s own chest?
“And this is the man that conjured this miracle?” Each word of the aide speared his faltering confidence, and he closed his eyes. This was not how it was supposed to be. He was never designed for this.
The king hummed his confirmation and the transfer was complete. He had to justify himself, and that would be tough. He had never managed to do that. Not even to himself.
“And you are?”
When he raised his head and went to open his mouth, the prospect of his peasant twang froze him. That was the final nail in his resolve. He could not spar with these oiled serpents, masters of tongue and politics. What right did he have to respond? He was the most common of stock. He puckered his arse, succumbing to that same cowardice that identified his childhood. His hands fidgeted, and when he did manage to blurt out his name, it sounded childish. Oh so childish.
“I am General Adnan ap Kantal of the Delfinian army.”
And foolish. That too. Definitely foolish.
Was it hot in here? No; it was just him. He could see it in the faces of the other table guests. They were smirking at his impotence. When the Gorfinian King raised his fist, he assumed it was for the ear of the aide. Instead the Hooded King thumped it down with stony authority, noise crashing through the room, shredding his residual nerve. He was a ghost now, and the aide’s words nearly blew him away.
“Tell me, General. What makes you think that you have earned the right to gamble with my Lord King’s property?”
It was a good question, and if he couldn’t answer this, then he deserved to fail. He looked to his own remarkable story.