A few minutes later, the four of them were sat together inside the small, crowded inn, squinting at a large board next to the serving hatch that announced what food was on offer. The room itself was clean, if a little cluttered, and had a low ceiling that added to the claustrophobic feeling of the place.
There were seven tables in the cramped room, which didn’t allow for much movement between them. The décor was old and tatty and cobwebs clung loosely to the walls, giving the place an air of neglect.
Ryden was silent and sat staring into the distance whilst the others talked around him. Hearing his father’s name this far from home had come as quite a shock to him and he still had a lump in his throat as his emotions threatened to overwhelm him. He had left it to Melca to explain his reaction and now he remained speechless in the busy tavern, almost unaware of the conversation around him.
‘You know, there is a striking family resemblance between Ryden and Dario,’ the stranger said. ‘I had resigned myself to the fact that Dario was probably dead, having not heard from him in such a long time; however it still comes as sad news. He was a good man.’ Seeing that Ryden had gone rather pale, he addressed him directly.
‘I do apologise for stirring up old memories, Ryden. Let’s talk about something else.’ He turned to Allisad. ‘Tell me about yourself sir; you don’t sound like a Rejkman.’
‘There isn’t a lot to tell,’ Allisad said hastily. ‘But what about you? You haven’t even given us your name yet.’
‘Of course, how remiss of me. My name is Carrick. I have spent most of my life here in Jalapa, in the king’s army.’
Ryden recognised the name from his father’s diary but decided not to mention it. He was more interested in asking about his father but before he could do so a short, clean-shaven man came to the table, flashed a false smile and asked for their order.
Once they had chosen their meals, the young kitchen-hand scurried away, weaving between the other tables with practised ease. Ryden immediately began to question Carrick. ‘How did you meet my father?’
’We were working together in the king’s parliament and quickly became friends. Dario was an easy man to get on with but also very committed to his work. We used to go drinking together in the evenings and sit on the beach philosophising until the early hours.
’Both your parents had grown up in Poranthia, so when they found out your mother was pregnant with you they moved away from Jalapa to be with family. They moved from Poranthia to Cadmir a few years later.
‘We stayed in contact, your father and I; we wrote to one another regularly and even met up from time to time but I missed having him around. When I hadn’t heard from him for over a year I began to fear the worst although I still held out some hope.’
Carrick was well-spoken and articulate, his slow pace of speech conveying an air of gravitas. However, as Ryden listened he could also hear the man’s warmth coming through, particularly when he spoke affectionately of the times he’d shared with Ryden’s father.
‘What did he do in parliament?’ Ryden asked. ‘He never really spoke of his life before coming to Cadmir and I never thought to ask him.’
‘Indeed, why would you? It was a different life. But I daresay his civil service job would be of little interest to you even if I were to tell you. I’d like to know what’s been happening in Cadmir. Tell me, Ryden, how old are you? Fifteen?’
‘Sixteen!’ Ryden corrected him.
‘Sixteen. Of course, I should have remembered. A grown man now; my, my. So you’ve grown up in Cadmir. Tell me, what happened there last week? All I have heard is that the Kappish army destroyed the village.’ He surreptitiously glanced at Allisad then continued. ‘I can’t understand why they would employ such an unnecessary strategy.’
‘We were in the hills when it happened,’ Ryden explained. ‘We returned to find the village ablaze.’
‘And,’ Carrick paused and then lowered his voice, ‘forgive me for all the questions, but… no one survived?’
‘None but the two of us, to our eternal regret,’ Ryden replied solemnly.
‘And we should have died with them,’ Melca added.
‘Now I don’t believe that,’ Carrick said softly, resting a hand on Melca’s shoulder. ’I imagine the Author has spared you for a greater purpose. You may not yet know what that purpose is but these things can often be more than just coincidence. Have you heard of the term survivor’s guilt?’
Melca and Ryden shook their heads and Carrick continued. ’It is a common phenomenon that occurs when people live through great tragedies. I had a friend once, charming fellow, who survived a shipwreck. A storm had shredded the sails and upturned the vessel but this chap was washed ashore. When he awoke, some of his crewmates had been washed up as well but not one of them survived.
Although physically he had come to no harm, the poor fellow never recovered on the inside. He always blamed himself for the accident, even though there was no way he could have averted the disaster. He said he should have been on lookout, even though his shift had finished and he was asleep when the storm hit. He said he should have warned the captain not to make the journey on that day, even though he had no way of knowing what would come to pass. He let it haunt him till his dying day.
‘As I said, it’s a perfectly natural reaction to this kind of trauma but I beseech you; don’t fall victim to it. Everything happens for a reason and nothing you could have done would have prevented what happened. Don’t let it ruin your life as my friend did.’
When he finished speaking, the others stayed silent, absorbing what he had said. Melca felt himself welling up with tears as emotions washed over him. Carrick’s words had subconsciously driven him to release all the pent-up anger and guilt he had been harbouring since the event.
Allisad broke the silence with a sneer. ‘Just because your friend lost the plot, doesn’t mean these boys are going to. You don’t know what they’ve been going through this last week; it’s been hell for them but I can assure you they’re not crazy.’
Ryden cast a wary eye from Allisad to Carrick and back to Allisad again. Although he liked Allisad, he couldn’t understand why the man was addressing Carrick with such contempt. It’s almost as though he’s jealous of the attention, Ryden thought, then dismissed the idea as quickly as it had come to him.
The four of them ate their meals quickly and with little further conversation. Once they’d finished, Carrick insisted on paying for the meal. As he did so, Allisad excused himself and made his way to the outhouse behind the inn.
The wooden outhouse was tiny and poorly ventilated. Allisad tried not to gag at the foul smells drifting up through the stalls and as he urinated he occupied himself by reading the badly-spelt phrases scratched into the wood in front of him.
’Rik woz ‘ere,’ was written in capital letters, not far from a disproportionate sketch of a naked woman. Near the door were the words ‘servents quarters,’ and an arrow pointing down the hole of the nearest stall. He shook his head at the immature humour and sighed.
The last few days had really taken it out of him and he was looking forward to sleeping in a soft bed until long past sunrise. Maybe I’ll even sleep until noon, he thought to himself, then grinned at the prospect.
He finished relieving himself and refastened his trousers. As he turned to leave he felt two strong hands grasp his lapels and slam him against the wall.
‘You and I need to get a few things straight, young man,’ announced the attacker. Carrick was surprisingly strong for his age and his eyes gleamed with determination. Allisad grabbed the man’s wrists and tried to ease himself away from the wooden wall of the outhouse.
‘What’s your problem?’ Allisad demanded. ‘What have I done to anger you, old man?’
‘I need to know your intentions. What is a Kapp doing so far from home, in a country he is at war with? And don’t even think about lying to me because I can read a man’s eyes as easily as one would read a book.’
Allisad tried to push his assailant backwards but Carrick held firm. ‘I am no longer with the army and General Lazarus wants me dead. I am here to help Rejkland and, in so doing, help myself. Read of that what you will.’
‘So I were to say that what you have told me is all horse-dung and you are a spy, what could you say to convince me?’
‘Firstly, I see no reason why I need to justify myself to you and secondly, what evidence could I give you other than to suggest you speak with Lazarus himself? He hasn’t exactly issued me his intentions in writing. But ask yourself this; if I were a spy, why would I be wasting my time with two adolescent refugees instead of infiltrating the army or trying to break into the palace?’
‘Which brings me on to my next question; why are you travelling with Ryden? You have clearly not come from Cadmir so how did your paths cross and what benefit do you hope to gain from your association with him?’
At that point Allisad succeeded in prising the man’s hands from his clothes and Carrick immediately rotated his wrists and grasped hold of Allisad’s forearms. As they grappled, Allisad spoke between grunts. ‘Look, I’d love to stay and chat but this is not the most civilised place for a mother’s meeting. Let’s step outside at least.’
Carrick agreed. ’Don’t waste your time trying to run though; I will not find it difficult to have you caught and tried should you make any rash moves.
‘Understood,’ Allisad responded and then made his way outside to one of the worn wooden tables that dotted the small garden, followed by a wary Carrick. As they sat down, Allisad continued.
‘I was travelling here from Delcia, as fast as possible if truth be told and I met the boys in Sharbury. They too were heading this way and so we decided to travel together. There is nothing untoward about it; it was purely agreed for mutual benefit. I am well-accustomed to travel, whereas they have the advantage of nationality over me.’
Carrick’s face softened and as it did so the warmth returned to his eyes, giving him the look of a caring father. However, his questions continued to probe unabated. ‘And now you are here, what is the plan of action?’
‘I honestly don’t know. I have a lot of information that would be useful to the king but I should imagine gaining an audience with him and reassuring him of my intentions will prove even more difficult than convincing you.’
’Let me make something clear. I know who you are. Your name is Allisad and you are the right-hand man of General Lazarus. I have also heard you referred to as ‘the Hunter’ because of your exploits. It may interest you to know that you are one of the most hated Kapps in the land, probably beaten to that title only by Lazarus himself and perhaps King Garro.
‘My concern is not just of the risk you pose to my country but also to Ryden and Melca. As Dario’s friend and confidant, I feel it is my duty to look out for his boy now that he’s not around.’
‘Well put your mind at rest about that,’ Allisad advised. ‘I bear no ill will to Ryden or Melca; on the contrary I’ve found them to be good company these last few days.’
‘Be that as it may, you still haven’t explained why Lazarus has turned against you,’ Carrick continued. ’I understood you were his most senior officer. But regardless of whether or not you are speaking the truth, I cannot let you walk away from here. You want to speak with King Rogar? Then I will take you to him directly. He can decide for himself whether you will be a help or a hindrance to our campaign.
‘Oh yes,’ he added as an afterthought, ‘I would also suggest that you come quietly, old bean, because the two guards watching us can be fairly uncompromising in their views.’
For the first time, Allisad realised they were being observed by two men wearing the blue and yellow of the King’s Guard. As he got to his feet, the men stepped closer and each adjusted his grip on his sword-pommel.
‘Where are the boys, Carrick? They too would like to meet the king and I wouldn’t want to deny them the opportunity.’
‘Quite right too. They are no doubt waiting for us in the street; let’s go and find them and then you will all get your wish.’
Under his breath, Allisad muttered, ‘Sure. My wish was to be dragged in front of the king on suspicion of espionage.’
‘I should tell you that my hearing is exceptional,’ Carrick replied. ‘You should also be grateful to me. Had a member of the King’s Guard found you first, you’d have been brutally killed on suspicion of espionage. As I mentioned, very uncompromising.’
Ryden was having issues. Melca had fallen into conversation with one of the market-traders and wouldn’t be prised away. ‘Just wait a moment!’ he hissed to Ryden when his friend began to tug his arm, ‘I’m about to get the bargain of a lifetime!’
‘…so as I was saying,’ the merchant continued, ’this ring, which is 24-carat gold, was given to King Rogar on his coronation and he has worn it ever since. Only two months ago, he had to remove it for the last time on the insistence of his physician, who had observed that it was obstructing the king’s circulation. By chance, that physician is a close friend of my brother, who gave me the ring as a gift.
‘It is with regret that I must sell it today, for tomorrow I travel to Rektor and would be executed if I were found with an item that belonged to King Rogar for so many years. It is worth eight guineas but I can sell it to you for just four guineas if you buy it now.’
‘Four guineas!’ Ryden exclaimed, ‘that’s outrageous! You could buy a dozen rings for that price!’
‘Yes, but this belonged to the king!’ Melca argued. ‘Seeing as we’ve got the money in that chest, why shouldn’t I buy something nice? We’re lucky to be here today of all days; this is the offer of a lifetime!’
‘No. You’re not spending four guineas on a ring; I refuse to give you the money. I’d consider two guineas excessive.’
Melca turned immediately back to the trader. ‘I can give you two guineas for it?’
‘Look, you clearly have an eye for a bargain. I can agree at three guineas but not a penny less. You’re a tough negotiator. I shouldn’t be letting it go for that; it must be worth at least ten.’
‘You said it was worth eight!’ Ryden countered.
‘That was the value of the ring itself. Seeing as the king owned it, it must be worth well in excess of ten. In fact, I don’t know if I can sell it for three, I’d be ruining myself.’
Just as Melca was about to protest that the trader had already agreed to it, he heard someone speak behind him. He whirled round to see Carrick and Allisad, who had arrived so quietly that he hadn’t even heard them approaching.
‘This was owned by the king, was it?’ Carrick asked the man.
‘That’s right, the same one he’s worn for the last thirty years yet there’s barely a scratch on it.’
‘It looks like gold to me.’
’Twenty-four carat it is; you know your stuff all right.
‘Indeed.’ Carrick paused before speaking again. ‘I also know that King Rogar suffers an allergic reaction to gold and can’t wear it without coming up in a rash. A condition he’s had since childhood, sadly.’ He turned and smiled warmly at the boys. ‘As it happens, Allisad and I were about to visit him. Would you like to join us?’
Ryden grinned as they walked off towards the palace together, leaving the merchant open-mouthed in disbelief.
As they drew closer, Ryden could see the towers and spires of the palace looming over the city. It was very different to how he had imagined it because until now, the only palaces he had seen were pictures in fairytale books. This was a lot more rugged; more like a castle with its heavy stone battlements and fortifications.
Clearly this palace was more practical than those he’d imagined as a child and although it was smaller than he had anticipated, it was still an impressive building. The Rejk flag, a yellow lion on a blue backdrop, fluttered from a large flagpole protruding from the top of the foremost spire. Other blue and yellow pennants were hung liberally around the building and surrounding walls.
Allisad put an arm around Melca’s shoulder as they walked. ‘Shame your bargain on the stall back there didn’t work out, Mel. The king’s sovereign ring as well. Still, you’re no fool, eh? You wouldn’t have fallen for that old trick. You’d know if someone was trying to pull a fast one, right?’
‘All right, you’ve made your point. He was pretty convincing though; he’d have had you fooled.’
‘I doubt that my friend. I’ve met my share of salesmen and never yet found an honest one. Haven’t you heard the old joke? How many salesmen does it take to change a candle?’
‘No. How many?’
‘None. All you need to do is buy this new, state-of-the-art candlestick, which detects when the candle needs changing, removes it, inserts a replacement, and makes you a cup of Deria while you wait. Only five shillings. Can I interest you in one?’
‘Yeah, very funny. How is it that we’re going to see the king, anyway? I thought we were going to sign up at the barracks tomorrow.’
‘Well, there’s been a change of plan.’ He glanced over to make sure Carrick was out of earshot and whispered conspiratorially, ’Our new friend here thinks I’m a traitor and wants the king to decide what to do with me.’
‘What?’ Ryden overheard and joined in the conversation in a hushed voice. ‘Well should we do something?’
‘Not really.’ Allisad advised. ‘I knew there would be some kind of commotion once someone recognised me but this is why I’m here. I’ve got nothing to hide.’
‘What about us?’ Melca asked, panicked. ‘Do they think we’re spies as well?’
‘No. Carrick knows you and wants to protect you. You’re here because I asked for you to be.’
‘Why? Why did you bring us into it?’ Melca demanded. ‘This could get us into real trouble, harbouring a spy. We could be executed!’ As he became more and more uptight he began to hyperventilate, much to the amusement of Allisad.
‘Calm down Mel, it’s fine. You won’t be in any trouble, I just asked for you because I thought it would be an adventure. Aren’t you excited? Very few people get to meet the king face to face.’
‘I’m excited,’ Ryden chipped in. We’re meeting the most important man in the country. He’s going to know who we are! Although,’ he quickly lowered the tone of his voice, ‘I hope it doesn’t cause you problems.’
‘I’ll be fine Ry. Trust me.’ Allisad fell silent as Carrick swung in a little closer to them so that he was within earshot.
As the conversation lapsed, Allisad restarted the internal debate he had been having repeatedly over the last two days. If he had found himself in front of King Rogar two weeks ago, his only thought would have been assassination, regardless of the risk to himself.
But now? He was not so sure. There were no guarantees that a successful assassination would allow him back into Kappland. ‘Once a turncoat, always a traitor,’ as the saying went.
On the other hand, what if his story held no ground with King Rogar? He could be carted off as a traitor at any minute and lose his opportunity of redemption anyway.
As these conflicting thoughts swam around his head, they arrived at the palace gates. Unlike the city gates, these were made of wrought iron however they were no less impressive in size or stature. Both featured an intricate lion emblem and were locked together by several metal bolts, each as wide as a man’s arm.
One of the guards who was escorting them spoke in an undertone through the bars to another man clad in the same blue and yellow. After a few moments, the gates swung open and allowed the small group through.
Carrick stepped forward first, then Allisad who was flanked on either side by burly guards. Melca and Ryden followed last and when they entered the palace courtyard, two more guards filed in behind them as the gates were swung shut with a long, slow creak.
The interior of the palace was like a maze to Melca. Every few seconds they were turning this way and that, around corners, through doorways and up endless flights of stairs. By the time they reached the fifth floor his calf muscles burned and he considered asking for a rest. Before he did so, however, they were stopped by the guards and disarmed, then led through a final archway and out onto a broad balcony overlooking the city.
The view was incredible. Melca’s jaw dropped as he gazed out across the buildings, some incredibly modern brick or stone, others mere slums built from wooden planks and held together with mud.
Then he looked down. Suddenly seeing just how high up they were was too much for Melca to take and his legs buckled and almost gave way. Steadying himself, he backed away until his spine pressed against the outer wall of the palace and stood there, quivering.
Ryden, meanwhile, darted forward and leaned over the stone balustrades in wonderment. Neither of them had noticed the regal-looking gentleman on the far side of the balcony, who wore a loose white shirt and rich blue leggings and stood watching them with a look of mild amusement.
Allisad and the guards had, however, so they stood silently with their heads bowed towards him. Carrick cleared his throat politely to get the boys’ attention and then followed suit. The boys quickly spotted their mistake and bowed deeply; a manoeuvre that almost cost Melca his footing as he struggled to still his quaking legs.
‘Welcome.’ King Rogar smiled and settled himself on a wooden seat that was supported from above and could swing freely backwards and forwards. His face was etched with a plethora of wrinkles caused by decades of smiles, frowns, joys and griefs. Although he wasn’t a tall man he had a presence about him that made it hard not to look at him.
The guard nearest to him spoke a formal introduction. ’My liege, this man has arrived in our city this morning from Kappland. We felt it necessary to bring him to your attention.
‘Thank you, Dumar.’ The king replied. ‘And what is his name?’
‘I…’ the soldier frowned and looked to his counterpart for assistance, but the man merely shrugged and said nothing.
‘But come, we shouldn’t be so discourteous to our guests as to neglect to ask their names.’
Ryden smiled at the king’s humility. He instantly felt a great respect for the man, who had referred to his own guard by name as well as enquiring after others.
Carrick stepped forward. ‘His name is Allisad, your majesty.’
A spark of recognition flashed in the king’s eyes but he merely nodded and turned to Allisad. ‘A pleasure to meet you. And who are your companions?’
Ryden and Melca glanced at each other, unsure how to respond. Fortunately, Carrick spoke up again. ‘This boy is the son of an old friend of mine; the two of them have come to visit our fair city from their village in the north. They were excited to meet with you.’ The boys both nodded quickly and uttered affirmations. ‘Their names are Ryden and Melca.’
Ryden stepped forward, bowed clumsily and said, ‘it’s an honour to meet you, my liege.’
‘Me too, your liege,’ Melca added, then after a hastily whispered correction from Ryden he corrected himself. ‘My liege, I mean,’ he said, going as white as a sheet.
The king chuckled deeply, making a sound like a distant roll of thunder. ‘Then you are most welcome here in Jalapa and I hope you enjoy your stay.’ He reverted his attention back to the unshaven man stood before him. ‘Allisad is an unusual name; I cannot imagine that many of your countrymen share it and yet it is familiar to me.’
‘Your majesty, I’m sure my reputation precedes me, especially to one as perceptive as yourself. I am the man who until recently was ranked highly in the Kappish army.’
‘I see. Well it is certainly a surprise to see you here before me like this. To what do I owe the pleasure?’ One of the guards smirked briefly before reinstating his passive expression.
‘I am here of my own accord, having left the Kappish army a week ago after a disagreement with General Lazarus. I believe that he now wants me dead. The feeling is mutual.’
‘If that is true and you are no longer leading his forces against us then this comes as good news to me. It is common knowledge that you are a strong leader and an integral part of the Kappish army.’
The king idly rocked his seat backwards and forwards, looking for all intents and purposes like a man who had not a care in the world. ‘You have certainly been a thorn in my side,’ he added, causing Allisad to break eye contact briefly and incline his head. ‘However, you can imagine how absurd this all seems to me.’
‘Of course, your majesty. Were I in your shoes, I would be equally wary. Let me assure you, however, that if I were still involved in this war I would not be participating in espionage of any kind for two very good reasons. Firstly, before I fell from grace I was considered invaluable to Lazarus, whereas spies need to be dispensable. And secondly, I am familiar to many and am likely to be recognised wherever I go if I stay for long enough. Not a good trait for anyone involved in undercover work, as I’m sure you appreciate.’
‘Although you raise some good points, I would still not be convinced if I were to look at them in isolation. But my own spies have already informed me that Allisad the Hunter has been denounced as a traitor in Rektor and has a price upon his head.’
‘Really? How much?’ Allisad asked before he could stop himself.
King Rogar roared with laughter again, this time accompanied by Carrick and the guards. ‘Let’s just say you ought to tread very carefully. Now then, you’ve fled from Delcia and come straight to Jalapa. Why? What do you intend to do now?’
‘With your consent I would like to offer my assistance in overthrowing General Lazarus,’ Allisad replied. ‘Can I speak freely in this company?’ he continued, then paused for a response, waiting to see whether Carrick would be dismissed.
‘As long as these boys can be trusted,’ the king replied, looking towards Carrick who nodded his approval. ‘Then continue, Allisad. You intrigue me.’
‘Your majesty, how long had you and King Garro held good relations and friendly borders before this war began?’
‘For over thirty years there was no animosity between Rejkland and Kappland.’
‘And what do you suppose was the catalyst that changed that?’ Allisad pressed.
The king remained silent, waiting for him to continue.
‘As far as I can tell, the reason was General Lazarus. He holds too much influence over the throne. Until recent years I had always considered King Garro to be a good king; a fair king. You will no doubt be aware, however, that some of his recent decrees have been less than favourable for the Kappish people.’
‘You remain loyal to your country then?’ King Rogar raised an eyebrow and Allisad immediately realised that he was skating on thin ice.
‘To my country, yes. To King Garro? That depends on whether he continues to make poor decisions. But I am firmly opposed to General Lazarus and it is he that is bringing war and bloodshed to your lands. I therefore wish to stop his marauding and end the war.’ Allisad paused, then added, ‘I, too, have seen good men lose their lives.’
King Rogar frowned and pursed his lips. ‘And yet now you wish to fight against your kinsmen. Friends, family…’
‘I no longer have any friends. Or family, for that matter. I am no closer to the men in the Kappish army than I am to your own men.’
There was a long silence, interrupted only by Melca shuffling his feet nervously. Allisad and King Rogar held eye contact for a number of minutes, saying nothing, which reminded Melca of the staring contests he’d had as a child to test how long he could last without blinking.
Then the king spoke. ‘What do you wish to do then? Join my army as an officer? No man will follow you until you have proven yourself and earned his respect. Or did you intend to advise on strategy and hide out from the rest of the war, a safe distance from the fighting? Again, this would make it very difficult to gain respect and therefore loyalty from the troops.’
‘I was not hoping for anything so glamorous. No, I just wish to join the front line. Be in the thick of the action. I will serve you well, your highness; you have my word.’
‘Very well. If you are willing to take an oath then I will swear you in now. Dumar?’
The guard stepped forward. ‘Yes, my liege?’
‘Fetch Allisad his sword.’
Allisad’s eyes flashed momentarily but it went unnoticed. Dumar nodded and scuttled out, returning shortly afterwards with the broadsword that Allisad usually wore on his left hip. Carrick opened his mouth to protest but the king caught his eye and made it clear that the decision had already been made.
The king gestured to Allisad to come forward and kneel. As he did so, Dumar stepped forward with the weapon. Allisad looked up at the king, who had risen from his swinging seat and was busying himself with a ceremonial robe that had been brought in for him to wear. Ryden stood watching Allisad and was surprised to see a bead of sweat trickling down his forehead.
Dumar knelt beside Allisad and presented him with his sword, hilt-first. King Rogar was still otherwise engaged, adjusting his crown so that it swept his fringe back from his face. The remaining guard was brushing the back of the velvet robe with a lint-brush.
Allisad swallowed and closed his hand over the hilt of his sword.