Sleep didn’t come easily to Ryden that night. The air was muggy and they had long since extinguished the fire, not needing it for warmth or light. However it wasn’t the heat that prevented him from getting any rest.
Tomorrow would be Sunday and just one week ago he had been sitting at the summer fete with hardly a care in the world. How quickly can joy turn to sorrow; contentment to devastation.
All those things he’d taken for granted he now longed for. Even the frustrations he’d had, the people he had disliked in Cadmir, would be welcomed back with open arms if he could just turn back the clock and do something.
Allisad’s words rang again in his ears. That life is dead and gone.
Ryden realised that all three of them had encountered life-changing events; all three of them were trying to create a new life from the remnants of what they had known. He reached into his bag and once again picked out his father’s journal, feeling an unexpected sense of purpose when his fingers touched the soft leather.
It was far too dark to read and Ryden considered stoking what was left of the embers to bring the fire back to life. He soon dismissed the idea; instead clinging to the book as a child would cling to a comfort blanket. Even so, it was another hour before he was able to drift into a fitful sleep.
When Ryden finally began to snore gently, Allisad rose from where he had been laying several feet away and stood silently in the clearing. He watched his companions for several minutes, his eyes darting from one to the other whenever he saw one of them stir.
Satisfied that they were both sound asleep, he walked away to where the horses were tethered. Rusty, Storm and Shannon were all sleeping; hardly surprising considering they had been moving all day with few stops, however Dave remained alert and eyed his master warily.
‘Hello boy,’ Allisad said in a soft voice, careful not to rouse the sleepers. ‘Sometimes I think you can read my mind, you know.’
He stroked the horse absent-mindedly, looking up at the stars as he did so. Dave also glanced up at them but seeing that there weren’t any new ones he returned his gaze to the man’s face. Allisad’s lips moved silently, as though he were trying to solve some complicated problem, then finally he took a deep breath and turned his eyes back to Dave.
‘I thought perhaps we should go for a midnight ride?’ he suggested. Dave shook his head and then angled his nose upward, gesturing to the sky.
’I guess you’re right, we won’t be able to see a thing. It’s a shame the moon is so early in its cycle. Not to worry, I’m sure tomorrow will suffice.
Dave sniffed in agreement but waited till his master had returned to his previous position by the fire before sighing heavily and readying himself for sleep.
‘What time do you call this?’ Melca scolded as Ryden shielded a bleary eye from the brightness of the morning sunshine. We’ve been awake for over an hour and you’ve already missed breakfast!’
Ryden grunted and rolled onto his side, turning his back to the young baker. As he did so he felt a sharp stone cut into his arm and quickly rolled back, rubbing the sore area.
‘The creature awakes!’ Allisad said dramatically, bringing a smile to Melca’s face. Ten minutes more and we were going to leave you for the dogs!’
‘Dogs aren’t real though,’ Melca said quickly, not entirely convinced but not prepared to embarrass himself in front of Allisad.
Ryden rubbed his eyes, took a long draught from his waterskin and then breathed out slowly. Remembering he would have the opportunity to refill it before they left, he poured the remaining water over his head and face.
Melca laughed as he watched Ryden shake his head sharply from side to side, spraying Allisad with water.
‘Careful!’ Allisad warned, taking a step back, then without thinking he took his own canteen and sprayed water at Ryden. Ryden jumped to his feet and Allisad darted off towards the water, searching for a hiding-place.
Ryden rushed off after him, leaving Melca laughing so much that tears rolled down his cheeks and his sides ached.
When Ryden and Allisad returned a few minutes later, both soaked to the skin, Melca had packed all of their belongings and loaded them onto the horses, which stood patiently waiting for their riders. Within minutes they were on the road again and Allisad estimated that they would reach Jalapa before sundown.
In fact this proved to be a conservative estimate and before noon they began to see merchants and travellers by the wagonload, all heading either to or from the capital. Many of the wagons were enormous and needed six strong horses to pull them, so full were they with clothes, food and in some cases even timber and stone.
The dirt road they were taking was about four yards wide in places and no grass could be seen in this stretch of ground because it had been worn down to the dry, dusty mud beneath. The wagons that passed them clattered along as they encountered various bumps and dips in the hard-packed earth. Melca thought to himself how unpleasant a long journey would be with that racket going on. He even surprised himself when he told Ryden he was glad they had made the journey on horseback instead.
Ryden just smiled but his smug silence belied his thoughts; I told you so.
As they approached the city, Melca stopped. ‘That’s as far as we go together,’ he announced. Allisad and Ryden turned and stared at him. He continued.
‘You’re a wanted man,’ he said to Allisad. ‘They may have pictures of you. I saw a poster up in Poranthia once, showing the face of an outlaw and threatening to execute anyone that helped him.’
Ryden shook his head but Allisad spoke first.
‘Of course; I won’t ask you to put yourself at risk for me. There’s a war on and people will be cautious, so who knows how they may react if they recognise me. You guys go on; I’ll hang back for ten minutes and enter on my own.’
‘Fare you well then and perhaps we’ll see you again soon.’ Ryden said. Alli drew to a halt and watched the two of them ride off towards the city gates.
When they had covered a hundred yards or so they stopped. Ryden wheeled round and rode back towards Allisad. He wondered whether the boy had left something in Dave’s saddlebags by mistake so he began to rummage around to see what he might have forgotten.
Ryden called out to Allisad as he got closer. ‘I’ve changed my mind. We’ll go in together.’
Surprised and pleased, Allisad spurred Dave on and rode with Ryden back towards where Melca sat on his horse, grumbling to himself. ‘Why the change of heart?’ he asked Ryden as they rode.
’We arrived together so I don’t see any reason for splitting up now. You’re here to help Rejkland, not hinder it, so it is only right that you should get the opportunity to do so.
‘You shouldn’t have come back for me, you know,’ Allisad said as they caught up with Melca and he began to ride alongside them again.
‘Why’s that?’ Melca asked, surprised at the comment.
‘Well this is our first town since Sharbury so you both owe me a drink!’
At the gates there was a large queue of people, some with goods to trade or sell, some here to sign up to the army and many more from the surrounding villages seeking refuge. The throng of people was noisy and people jostled and barged for position. Few were on horseback and Melca was thankful for the fact, as being higher up made him feel less claustrophobic.
The smells from the crowd, however, were still just as pungent; the mixture of sweat, over-ripe fruit and filthy animals was almost too much to bear.
‘Look at all these people. We’ll still be stood here tomorrow at this rate! And even if we do get in, where are we going to stay? I bet by now all the inns and hostels will be packed to the rafters; we’ll probably end up in the stable with the horses!’
‘That’s if we can find a stable with some room,’ Ryden added.
‘Do you think it’s always like this?’ Melca asked. ‘It is the capital city, after all.’
‘No doubt the merchants and traders come and go but I expect a lot of these people are here because of the war. Look how many bags these families in front of us are carrying. Besides, why else would you travel with such young children on a day like this? I would guess they’ve either been forced from their homes already, if they’ve come from Poranthia or Delcia, or they are scared about what will happen when the Kappish army does reach them.’
The conversation stopped as Ryden fell into a thoughtful silence. Melca idly scanned the landscape, looking for something to hold his interest.
The city itself was surrounded by high walls, easily the height of four men, built of heavy-looking stone bricks about two foot in length and over a foot high. The wall extended as far as the eye could see and the surface was surprisingly smooth, no doubt eroded from years and years of wind and rain beating against it.
The bricks ranged in colour from a pale grey that was almost white, through a spectrum of yellows and oranges, to a charcoal grey. Melca idly wondered whether the stone had been excavated from different parts of the country and brought here before construction. Either way, it seemed to him to be an extraordinary achievement for the work of men.
It would also be an intimidating fortification for any invading army to face and so he could understand why people were flocking to the city. Stood next to it as he was, it loomed over him like a cliff-face overshadowing a beach far below.
The top of the wall was crenulated with a six-foot gap between each raised wall and as Melca had not seen the like before, he thought it resembled an enormous picket fence. He wondered why the builders had chosen to make it in such a way; it seemed an unusual design choice but he thought no more about it as his eyes were drawn elsewhere.
About a hundred yards in front of him stood the gates to the city. Two enormous wooden doors, such a dark brown that they looked almost black in places, barred the way for any unwanted visitors.
They looked as though they had been made for a giant by nailing whole trees together. Each door was over twelve feet wide and the hinges were plates of metal that extended almost the full width of the door, tapering to a point where the last bolt was fitted. In the bottom of each door was a much smaller door, made from the same wood, which was just the right height for a man to walk through.
Melca found the sight extremely amusing. It reminded him of the cat-flaps his neighbours had used back home and he began to imagine a giant cat with humans as pets, free to come and go as they pleased through their ‘human-flap’.
Ryden heard his friend start laughing for no reason and turned to look at him, an eyebrow raised quizzically, but Melca just smiled and looked away. Staring back towards the gates, he looked carefully at the four guards who were stood in pairs in front of them, speaking to people and occasionally searching them.
Without exception, the four warriors were all heavily built and wearing full battle armour, which in this weather must have been extremely uncomfortable for them. The Rejk flag was emblazoned across their chests in blue and yellow, signifying that they were members of the King’s Guard.
Ryden had heard about these warriors in stories and had previously believed them to be unbeaten in battle, fearless in the face of adversity and as loyal to the king as his own flesh and blood. This is how the King’s Guard was described in the sagas.
The reality looked a little different. They seemed pretty average, perhaps a little overweight and not a bit like the fairytale knights he had expected. Every now and then they would stop and chat amongst themselves, leaving the next group in line growing increasingly impatient.
Further back in the queue, Melca, Ryden and Allisad stood in silence for a while longer amidst the noise and the stink of the crowd. They shuffled forward slowly as, one by one, people were admitted to or turned away from the great city. Allisad watched closely to see who was being turned away and for each person he attempted to guess what reason the guards may have had for rejecting them.
When they were about twenty yards from the gate, an argument kicked off between a man who claimed to be a silk-merchant and the guards who were interrogating him.
‘You haven’t come from the southlands,’ one of the soldiers accused, ‘you’re as white as a snowman and you speak like a Kipper’.
Ryden noticed Melca’s puzzled look and explained that ‘Kipper’ was a derogatory term for someone from Kappland. Melca nodded in understanding as the row continued.
‘Well I wasn’t there long, I just went to pick up my wares and then came straight back. Anyway, I don’t tan easily. I was born and bred in Delcia.’
‘If you’re Delcian then I’m a mermaid,’ the guard retorted, to the amusement of his fellow guards. ‘Now clear off.’
‘Please,’ the man begged, ‘I just want to stay for one night; I haven’t had a good meal in days. I’ll do one day’s trade and then I’ll leave, I promise.’
The guard cast a sidelong glance to his colleague and inclined his head very slightly. Instantly the remaining soldiers stepped in and took hold of the man, bustling him through the gates and out of sight.
The first man slumped into a chair next to the gate and took a long draught of water, then sighed audibly. He stayed there, almost motionless, until the others began to return. Melca, Ryden and Allisad cast worried looks at each other and said nothing.
By the time they reached the front of the queue, Ryden was extremely nervous. He had no idea whether they would get through or not and certainly didn’t want to be carted off like the previous suspect.
The guard paced towards them, eying them suspiciously as he did so. It was the one who had just lost his temper and Ryden felt a lump form in his throat as the man’s gaze moved from him, to Allisad, to Melca and then back to Allisad again. Surprisingly, Allisad didn’t seem the least bit bothered and smiled warmly at the man, causing him to look back at Ryden quickly.
‘What’s your purpose here?’ he demanded.
‘We’ve come from the north; we wanted to get as far from the war as possible. We will be safe here.’
‘You should have stayed there to fight. Are you deserters?’
‘We were never in the army.’ Ryden replied hastily. ‘We’ve never fought before, we would be useless.’
‘Cowards,’ he muttered; then turning to Allisad, he said ’What about you, old man? You can’t tell me you’re too green to hold a sword!’
Not wanting Allisad to speak and give away his identity, Ryden jumped in. ‘He can’t fight either, he’s… he’s…’
‘…pregnant,’ Melca said without thinking, then immediately regretted it.
‘What? Are you trying to pull a fast one? Let him answer me himself. Why aren’t you fighting, man?’ He stared into Allisad’s eyes, daring him to speak.
Ryden’s heart sank. This would almost certainly blow their cover and if so then not just Allisad but all three of them would be made to answer for it. He wondered where they had taken the last man who’d been refused entrance and then decided he probably didn’t want to know.
Melca swallowed hard and tried to speak again but the soldier raised a hand and silenced him without breaking eye contact with Allisad.
Allisad smiled, inhaled slowly and then began to speak. ‘You are right. I should be fighting and I wish I was. However I have a serious condition that prevents me from doing so.’
As he spoke, Melca’s mouth fell open in shock and he closed it quickly. The voice he heard was unmistakeably Allisad’s; however the accent was completely different. He was mimicking the dialect that Ryden and Melca used and was extremely convincing, so much so that Melca realised he too would be fooled had he not known otherwise.
‘That sounds like a reasonable explanation,’ the guard replied, ‘so why did these boys try to lie to me? They could have caused you a lot of trouble.’
‘The ailment I have is an infected gastronomic ulcer, also called a pregnant stomach ulcer. The boys were, unfortunately, trying to have a joke with you. I trust you will excuse their childishness.’
The guard glanced warily from one face to the next and then nodded. ‘I have a boy about their age myself and I know what trouble they can be. On you go.’ With that he gestured them through the small door (or human-flap, as Melca now considered it to be) and turned back to the endless line of visitors.
When they stepped through the gate into Jalapa, Melca was speechless. Never before had he seen such enormous buildings but moreover he was shocked and disgusted by how close together they were, how dirty they were and by the fact that there was not a single dot of green in sight.
The roads were paved with stone, the houses were grimy and even the large courtyard area in which they stood was laid with a hard stone floor. He looked up at the perimeter wall and from this side he could see it was not just a wall after all; it was in fact a building in itself, about ten feet wide along its entire length, with a walkway running just below the summit.
Melca now recognised the purpose for the crenulations as he could see a couple of guards with longbows standing on the ramparts. In times of war, archers could duck out of the way of enemy fire before peering round and loosing another volley of arrows toward their foes.
Wide staircases ran up to the ramparts at regular intervals and many people had used them to gain access to the walls and were now enjoying a leisurely stroll around the fortifications. It seemed strange to him to see a building so obviously built for war in use by families, young couples and indeed the entire community.
The courtyard itself, which at the time of construction was designed for amassing an army just behind the gates, was now filled with market stalls. Brightly coloured awnings were mounted on poles, sheltering folding-tables filled with all manner of goods; from silks and cloths, to herbs, spices and perfumes, to fruit and vegetables both indigenous and exotic.
The walls echoed with the sounds of merchants shouting about their wares, each trying to raise their voice louder than the last. These cries merged with the clatter of carts, the squeals of pigs, buskers playing, children screaming and horses snorting.
The result was a cacophony of intrusive sounds and voices that made Melca’s head spin. How anyone could live in a place like this was beyond him.
‘Try not to stop and talk to anyone,’ Allisad warned. ‘These traders can spot visitors from a mile off and if they accost you then it will cost you.’
Ryden laughed at the wordplay, but Melca was indignant. ‘They won’t sell anything to me, I can assure you. I’m no fool and I know when someone’s trying to pull a fast one.’
‘I wouldn’t be so sure,’ Allisad replied, ‘most of these traders could sell sand in the desert.’
‘What’s the plan now then?’ Ryden asked, quickly changing the subject. ‘I could do with a bite to eat, if there’s a tavern nearby?’
‘Don’t look at me, I don’t know this place any better than you two, remember.’ Allisad wiped the sweat from his brow using the back of his hand and then cleared his throat. There was smoke coming from a stall that claimed to offer ‘delicious bacon butties’, but the meat certainly didn’t smell like pork and the off-cuts looked suspiciously like rat-tails.
‘Perhaps we should start by locating some stables and then find ourselves some rooms for the night,’ Ryden suggested. ‘Once that’s sorted then we can focus on the reasons why we’re here.’
Having been concerned about Allisad’s motives for the journey, Melca had secretly been looking forward to parting ways with him once they reached Jalapa. Now they were here, however, he was less eager to do so; the Kapp seemed to be fairly streetwise whereas Melca felt a bit lost in such a huge city.
For this reason they continued on together whilst they sought accommodation, first for their horses and then for themselves. Having done that, they wandered along the main street, looking with interest at the shops and houses they passed. Melca was amazed at just how many taverns there were and by the time they had walked five hundred yards they had already passed two overcrowded, noisy establishments and were approaching a third.
This one seemed quieter and as they were about to step inside, a man on the other side of the street clocked them and began to cross the road purposefully, his pace increasing as he did so.
Instinctively, both Allisad and Ryden felt their hands straying to their sword-hilts. Melca reacted more slowly and only upon seeing the movement of his comrades did he mimic the action. In so doing, he made a mental note that he would need to improve his reactions if he were to become a warrior.
As the man drew closer, he slowed and a frown appeared on his face. By the time he reached them he was moving no faster than a slow walking pace. Allisad spoke first. ‘Can we help you?’
The man stopped and smiled at them. ‘My apologies, I thought I recognised your friend here.’ He gestured towards Ryden. ‘He reminds me of a very dear friend whom I haven’t seen for too long. Silly, isn’t it, how one’s eyes can play tricks.’
Ryden looked at him carefully. He was in his forties however his face was heavily lined which suggested he had experienced a lot more than many people his age. He was of average height and smartly dressed in beige trousers and a loose-fitting blue shirt that occasionally caught the wind and billowed comically.
‘It’s an easy mistake to make,’ Ryden replied, feeling more relaxed but keeping his hand over his sword nonetheless. ‘However it must be a mistake, for I am new to Jalapa and have always lived in the north.’
‘As it happens, so does my friend. But last I heard he was living in Cadmir, which has now been taken by the Kapps if the rumours are to be believed. I apologise for disturbing you.’ He turned and made as if to leave but Ryden called after him.
The stranger turned back to him, a startled expression on his face. ‘We are from Cadmir,’ Ryden said. ‘And sadly, the rumours are true. The village is no more.’
‘Oh, how dreadful for you,’ the man sympathised, then added, ‘in honesty I have not heard from my friend in a long while, so he may have moved away from there some time ago. But perhaps you knew of him? He was the blacksmith of the village; he went by the name of Dario.’