Balenor knelt on the floor of his cluttered house, fiddling with a number of unusual objects. He was particularly focussed on a vast array of coloured strings, each of which was smooth to the touch with no sign of weaving. His grandson, John, looked on passively with a bemused look on his face.
Earlier that day, the old man had been poring over a book in his collection when he had cried out suddenly, alarming John who had been playing quietly with a deck of cards. He’d discovered something in the book that he felt was of great significance and was now excitedly tying different items together, cursing when they didn’t meet his liking.
It was all baffling to John, who had been asking questions and trying to understand the garbled answers his grandfather had given but to no avail. He helped the old man build a toy windmill on the roof of their house and then watched as he carefully laid two of the coloured strings (which John had now learnt contained thin strips of metal wire) on the table.
John had been tasked with keeping an eye on the sails of the device until they started turning. After several minutes of no movement, a gentle wind began to blow, spinning the blades slowly clockwise. John scrambled down the ladder and rushed in, just in time to see his grandfather hold the two coloured wires together.
As he did so a tiny bolt of blue lightning appeared between them, as though trying to connect them. He pulled them apart quickly. When he tried to touch them together a second time there was a loud popping sound accompanied by an orange flash. After that there were no more lights or sounds; the magic had finished.
That had been exciting. But now, John didn’t know what the old man was trying to do. He obviously wanted to achieve something but his explanations made very little sense. After sitting quietly for several minutes, John began asking questions again.
‘How did you make that spark without a tinderbox? Usually you need to rub things together but those strings didn’t even touch each other.’
‘This is the magic the Ancients used. That’s why they became so powerful. They used a turbine to harness wind magic. Put that turbine in a fast-flowing stream and you have water magic. Hold it above a fire so the smoke turns the blades, and you have fire magic.’
‘That doesn’t make sense, Gramps. Why would you need fire magic to make sparks if you already have a fire?’
‘This magic is not just limited to making sparks, John. The Ancients used it to make light and heat, they used it to propel bicycles built without pedals, they could even use it to make music without needing musicians. If I can master it, this could be the most amazing technological development since the Great Flood.’
Whilst Balenor spoke he continued wrapping the wires around all manner of oddly-shaped contraptions, none of which seemed to produce any effect. Every time he would tut, shake his head, then disconnect it and try something else.
‘Tell me about the Great Flood. If the Ancients were so powerful, why couldn’t they stop it?’
’It’s hard to say exactly what happened but from what I have read, it seems that it was this very magic that caused the Flood.
’You see, 208 years ago the Ancients were an extremely advanced civilisation, with copious amounts of both knowledge and power. What you must understand is that the world looked very different then. Most of the Masnian continent didn’t exist. It was underwater and instead there were entire countries made from ice.
‘However, although the elders were intelligent enough to invent this magic, they used too much of it which caused the temperature of the planet to rise. When the planet got hotter, the ice countries melted and their world was drowned. Almost all living creatures died in the Great Flood and the face of planet Earth was changed forever.’
‘I’d have built a boat and stayed on it, Gramps.’
Some did, my boy, some did. Indeed, some survived and that is why we are here today.’ After another unsuccessful connection, Balenor reached for another object; this time a glass ball with a metal core running through it. ‘But for many of those who tried, they ran out of food and found themselves no better off than those who had drowned.’
‘Gramps, look!’ John stood up suddenly and was pointing at the glass ball in astonishment, unsure whether to be excited or terrified. The wire core inside the ball was glowing unsteadily, like an oil lamp in front of a draught, flickering and wavering.
Gleefully, Balenor removed one of the wires, which caused the glowing to stop. He put it back in place and the glowing recommenced. ‘Eureka!’ he yelled, then stood and began doing a celebratory jig in the centre of the room, not in the least bit phased by the books he was trampling underfoot.
‘We’ve done it, laddie! We’ve created light without flame for the first time in over four centuries! Our names will go down in history!’
‘Brilliant! I can’t wait to tell the kids at school!’ John shouted, joining his grandfather in dancing around the room. After a moment or two he paused briefly, seemingly deep in thought, then added, ‘Can we have some dinner now please?’
Melca saw the guard bring Allisad his sword and then watched carefully as the Kapp’s eyes darted from the sword to King Rogar. He suddenly felt uneasy. What if this had all been a ruse to get in front of the king? They had no one to vouch for Allisad and they only had his word that he was no longer loyal to the Kappish army.
Allisad’s right hand closed around the sword and with his left hand he massaged his forehead. He slowly drew the sword from its sheath and licked his lips nervously. Melca glanced up and saw that King Rogar still had his back to Allisad. When the tip of the sword emerged from the sheath, Allisad turned his wrist slightly and bright sunlight glinted from the blade, dazzling Melca momentarily.
The young baker squinted and when he looked again Allisad had rested the blade on his open palms and remained on his knees, waiting for the king. Melca breathed a sigh of relief and then watched with renewed interest as the king turned back to the man and smiled.
‘Have you a surname?’
‘No, your highness,’ Allisad replied.
‘Good. That’s one less thing for me to remember. There are so many parts to this blasted ceremony, I don’t know why it has to be so complicated…’
Carrick cleared his throat meaningfully.
‘Well, anyway,’ the king continued, ‘let us begin. Allisad, you are here before me to swear your allegiance to Rejkland and fealty to myself, King Rogar of Rejkland. Are you making this oath willingly and honourably, to serve without question even unto death?’
‘Who here will stand witness that this man is of sound mind and fully understands the ramifications of the oath he is about to take?’
Ryden looked around. Other than the king there were several guards, himself, Melca and Carrick stood around watching the proceedings. After an uncomfortable silence Ryden realised that no one else would volunteer so he stepped forward and spoke hesitantly.
‘I believe him to be of sound mind and fully cognisant of the implications of the oath, your highness.’
The king looked up at him and smiled warmly before returning his gaze to the man knelt at his feet.
‘On those terms, Allisad, will you offer me your sword?’
Allisad raised his hands to present the weapon to the king, who placed one hand on the pommel and one beneath the blade, then lifted it and adjusted his grip on the handle. Allisad lowered his upturned palms and swallowed hard.
The king muttered something to himself but Ryden could just make out the words. ‘This sword, that has been the death of so many loyal soldiers of Rejkland, is now here to defend it.’ He chuckled to himself and shook his head. ‘I never thought I’d see the day.’
Looking back to Allisad, he spoke aloud again. ‘By this sword you are sworn to me. May the Author Of All Things smile upon you in the service of your…’ he paused and corrected himself quickly, ‘…in the service of Rejkland.’
As he spoke he placed the tip of the sword to Allisad’s heart. When he had finished, he used it to trace a circle on Allisad’s chest, then reversed the sword and offered him the hilt. ‘Arise, Allisad, and take your sword in order to defend this glorious country.’
Allisad did so and then re-sheathed the blade before bowing to the king.
‘Right,’ said King Rogar, ‘now that’s done I must excuse myself for a moment. Even kings have to visit the privy sometimes, you know.’ With that, he stood and walked out, leaving the assembled group surprised at his frank admission.
When the king returned, both Ryden and Melca requested to take the same oath and join the Rejk army. Once they had done so, the king had seats brought out for Carrick, Allisad, Ryden and Melca and the four of them sat in a semicircle around King Rogar’s swinging seat.
An attendant offered them drinks and as they waited for them to arrive, the king and Carrick made idle conversation about the weather and other trivial matters. Ryden felt completely star-struck. Here he was, sitting down face-to-face with the king, who was acting as if he had nothing more important to do than relax in the sunshine.
He could see that Melca felt the same because the baker kept fidgeting and wouldn’t say a word to anyone. The king turned to him after a short time and smiled. ‘Is everything all right, Melca? You don’t look very comfortable.’
‘No, no, I’m fine! Really! I just…’ he searched for the right words to say, not convinced that he should say anything at all. ‘You’re not what I expected, that’s all,’ he concluded.
‘Oh. Well I hope that’s a good thing?’ the king said, with a twinkle in his eye.
‘I thought, with you being the king and everything, you wouldn’t want to talk to us. I mean, we’re just country boys, we’re not important or anything.’
‘Nonsense!’ Rogar exclaimed. ‘It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re a farmer or a minister, you’re still equally important.’ He paused. ’But I understand what you mean. My father, the king before me, didn’t have much time for others. He ruled well but he was never ‘a man of the people’, as you might call it.
‘I didn’t want to be like that. I was thirty-four years old when he died and I became king. For years before that I spent as much of my time as possible in the city. I talked to people, I sat in taverns drinking, I entered archery competitions and jousts… my father disapproved in the strongest possible terms. But then, who doesn’t disappoint their father from time to time?’
Melca smiled, recalling times when his father had berated him for things that now seemed so trivial. The king continued.
’Sometimes I would go out in disguise just to hear what people would say about me and my father, or about the topics of the day. I learnt a great deal from that. How can I lead my people well if I don’t know what they want?
‘So I’m interested in you, Melca. Why have you decided to join the army? What do you think of Jalapa? Is your mother sat at home worrying about the well-being of her boy?’
At this last question, Allisad and Carrick both winced. Ryden swallowed and looked away.
‘It is because of my mother that I decided to join the army, my liege. She was murdered in our family home in Cadmir and I wish to avenge her death.’ He spoke in a steady voice and to Ryden’s surprise he held his emotions in check. King Rogar, however, was visibly dismayed.
‘My goodness, you poor boy! I was crushed to hear what happened there. I would have sent men but I was told that no one had survived. Your courage and fortitude does you much credit. And you, Ryden, you have come with Melca from Cadmir?’
‘Then I will see that you are both looked after. Do you have a place to stay? I will give you some money for food and clothing. Dumar, fetch me a coin chest immediately.’
Ryden answered quickly. ‘Thank you for your generosity but we have ample money. All we ask is a soldier’s salary, nothing more.’ King Rogar’s eyes were still wide with concern so Ryden pressed on.
‘I assure you, my liege, I would not be too proud to accept money if it were required. However, my father was a wealthy man and therefore my inheritance is enough for the two of us to live on.’ He chose not to mention that he also had the savings of the other villagers in his possession.
‘Very well,’ the king replied. ‘But if there’s anything you need, I will ensure it is provided.’
‘All we want is peace,’ Ryden said. ‘This is why we are here. To assist as best we can.’
The king nodded, then dismissed his guards with a wave of his hand and sat back, sighing. ‘Let us talk strategy then. Especially as we are now graced with one of the greatest strategists on the Masnian continent! What say you, Allisad? How do you picture this war unfolding?’
Allisad looked thoughtful for a moment and then began to speak slowly. ’Firstly, it is important for you to know that although this war is fought in King Garro’s name, it is General Lazarus who is making the decisions. The king doesn’t seem to have any input into how this war is unfolding.
’It is therefore crucial that we make our judgments based on the general’s temperament, rather than the king’s. With that in mind, let me tell you a little about the man who stands against us.
’Demus Lazarus grew up on the streets of Rektor, an orphan with no family save for his younger brother, Erik. When he was eleven and Erik was seven, they were out scavenging for food in the city when Erik got in the way of a passing cart and his leg was crushed under one of the wheels. The merchant stopped immediately, helped to bind Erik’s leg and then offered the boys some money by way of compensation.
’As the story goes, Demus took the money then stabbed the man in the stomach with a dagger. Although the smell of the blood made him vomit, he returned to where the man lay dying in the gutter and proceeded to gouge his eyes and hack off his fingers as the man screamed for mercy.
’The act filled Erik with revulsion and he begged and pleaded for his brother to stop. Demus was so enraged by these attempts to prevent what he saw as righteous justice that he killed his brother and swore never to let anyone get close to him again.
’Perhaps the story has been embellished somewhat over time but most of what I have relayed to you was told to me by Lazarus himself. To this day, he has never regretted his actions and never forgiven his brother for his treachery.
Melca blanched when he heard the tale whilst the others sat in stunned silence, waiting to hear more.
’He joined the army when he was fourteen and with his cunning and his sheer bloodthirsty passion he was able to advance through the ranks. He has developed an extremely convincing façade and uses this charm and charisma to manipulate those around him to do his bidding.
’You cannot appeal to his better nature, because he does not have one. You cannot negotiate with him, because whatever he needs he can take by force. You cannot go above his head, because he has King Garro wrapped around his finger.
‘All you can do is fight him; the only way to stop him is to kill him. And that will probably not be easy, considering the size of the respective forces.’
At this point King Rogar, who had been patiently listening, assessed the options. ‘I have written to the Gratolians requesting support but like us they do not have an army amassed and are preparing one as we speak. However, they will not join unless they see that they, too, are under threat.’
‘It may interest you to know,’ Allisad added, ‘that he too has requested their assistance and has offered them gold to support his invasion. They also perceive that by assisting him, they themselves will be protected from further conquest. Unfortunately they probably don’t know how fickle Lazarus can be or how quickly he will go back on his word once he has the wherewithal to strike at Gratolia as well.’
Carrick, who had been quietly watching the conversation unfold, took this opportunity to offer his own opinion. ‘My liege, if I may make a suggestion? Assuming, as I fear we must, that he will be successful in occupying Poranthia, he will not stop there. I am convinced that he will continue striking at each major city as he pushes southwards and will eventually bring his forces to Jalapa.’
Allisad interjected. ‘Not only the major cities, I’m afraid. He will eradicate any outpost he sees – every village, every smallholding – as he did with Cadmir. His paranoia tells him that every one of them is a threat and he will not stop until they are nothing but dust.’
‘In that case, my suggestion is even more appropriate. I don’t think many of our cities will be able to hold against the forces he can bring to bear. Therefore, drastic as it seems, I feel we must evacuate our other cities immediately. Send a message for all our people to travel either to Jalapa or to some of the smaller towns on the Gratolian border. We will concentrate our forces in this city, which is the most easily defensible and then face them on our own terms.’
As Carrick spoke, Allisad shook his head and tutted. ‘Well what would you have us do, Kapp?’ Carrick snapped. ‘If you can think of a better plan then I’d like to hear it!’
King Rogar intervened. ‘I’m sure we all want to find the best solution. Allisad, do you have any more insight that could help us?’
‘I do, your majesty. Firstly, as I have already explained,’ he glared at Carrick pointedly, ‘the towns bordering Gratolia are not by any means a safe haven as we don’t yet know what the Gratolians’ intentions are.
‘But secondly, Lazarus intends to bring a further ten thousand men from Kappland specifically for the final push on Jalapa. However, if we can muster our forces and face him before those reinforcements arrive we will have a much better chance of success. What cities are fortified well enough to defend against siege?’
As one, King Rogar and Carrick replied, ‘Halgorn’. The king continued.
’Halgorn was built almost two hundred years ago, when Jalapa was little more than a trading port. At the time it sat on the border of Caalgrath, before our territory grew to meet Kappland and we absorbed the Caalgrathian peoples into our own nation. It was a monument of its time, built sixty feet high and reinforced countless times over the years with the same hard basalt that makes up the surrounding landscape.
‘Unfortunately it has fallen into disrepair in places as it has not been required as a defensive structure for almost ninety years. However the walls still stand and are as strong as they ever were.’
Ryden was fascinated by the conversation, although he felt like a spare part and had nothing to contribute other than an attentive smile and occasional nods of agreement. He glanced at Melca, who clearly felt the same awkwardness and was trying not to show it.
He cleared his throat and looked back towards the king, then smiled sheepishly when he realised they were all looking at him expectantly. Feeling he needed to say something, he asked, ‘When will the Kapps reach Halgorn?’
‘A good question,’ Allisad said. ‘When Poranthia falls they will move to Dunelm unless I am very much mistaken and they will also send out scouting parties for any outlying villages. I imagine they will reach Halgorn in ten days, depending on how long Poranthia and Dunelm hold out.’
‘Ten days!’ Carrick started. ‘Good lord, man! It will take five just to march our chaps up there. Even then, the city is hardly prepared for siege. It’s not enough time.’
‘I’m afraid it will have to be,’ the king replied. ‘However, it is a big risk to take all our men from Jalapa and leave the capital city unprotected.’
‘Why would that be an issue?’ Ryden queried. ‘I mean, if they go past Halgorn to attack Jalapa, we can just go round and attack them from behind, can’t we?’
‘He makes a valid point,’ Allisad stated. ‘Whatever happens, Lazarus will know what we’re doing. You can’t move that many troops without people noticing and he has scouts who will report back to him. But it won’t matter; he will have no option but to attack us there. After all, he can’t win unless we surrender and we won’t do that whilst we are safe behind the walls.’
‘How big is Halgorn?’ Melca interrupted.
‘Why do you ask?’ Carrick countered.
‘Well it’s all very well having the army inside the walls but what about all the other people? You can’t leave them in their villages to be killed.’
The king nodded his agreement. ‘We will need to leave a token force in Jalapa, come what may, so perhaps it would be prudent to invite all Rejk civilians to stay here until the war runs its course. Not all will come, of course, but we need to offer them a safe haven nonetheless. They will be safer here than anywhere because the city can be defended easily for a short time by a relatively small number of people.’
‘It sounds like the plan is made,’ Carrick summarised. ‘But we have a lot to do in a very short space of time. We need to send immediate word to every village, town and smallholding in the country to give notice of our intentions. We’ll summon the people to Halgorn or Jalapa, depending on whether or not they are needed in the battle and then tomorrow morning we will set off to Halgorn ourselves.’
When no objections arose, he stood and bowed his head to the king and then walked purposefully back from the balcony into the castle. Allisad also rose to his feet and Ryden and Melca took their lead from him. The meeting was clearly over. They thanked the king for his time and two guards escorted them on the long descent through the castle to ground level and the city beyond.
As Melca emerged from the castle grounds into the sunny courtyard, he sighed and turned to Ryden and Allisad, who were walking alongside him. ‘Well that’s just great, isn’t it? We’ve been travelling for days without a decent meal or a soft bed, we finally arrive at our destination and before we’ve spent one night here we find out we’ve got to go somewhere else. I don’t even know where Halgorn is! It’s probably miles away and I’m already sore from all the riding I’ve done. Why can’t we just stay here?’
Allisad snorted. ‘Stay here with the women and children, is that what you’d like to do? Whilst men are dying for their country you’d stay behind, safe and warm and let others do your fighting for you?’
‘You have to admit that does sound tempting.’
‘Well I for one want to be there defending what I believe in,’ Ryden asserted. ‘Even though I’m terrified of dying, I’m not a coward. I’ll face my fears like a man and if my destiny is to die on the battlefield then let the Author take me.’
‘Spoken like a man.’ Allisad said. ‘Besides, they say that people find their true selves when faced with life or death situations. Melca, you’ll find courage and determination you never knew you had. Or loyalty, or strength, or wisdom. You will walk away from the battlefield with your head held high and your true colours flying for all to see.’
‘Yeah, all right, I’m coming, there’s no need to preach. I don’t like this city much anyway; no matter where you go, it still stinks.’
Laughing, the three of them headed back to the inn where they were due to be staying. As they walked they saw people running through the streets, shouting about the plan that had only been agreed mere minutes before.
‘It doesn’t take long for word to get around then!’ Ryden observed.
‘And no doubt Lazarus will know by this time tomorrow.’ Allisad replied darkly.
When they arrived at the tavern, Allisad muttered something and went straight to his room. Melca yawned and tapped his fingers on the bar.
‘If we’re going to be travelling again tomorrow morning, I think I’m going to catch up on my sleep as well.’
‘It can’t be much after five o’clock,’ Ryden countered, ‘we’ve still got four or five hours of daylight left yet!’
‘There’s a soft bed waiting for me, Ry. I want to make the most of it! I’ll catch up with you later.’
Ryden nodded and watched him walk away, then turned to look for the landlord. He cleared his throat loudly and within minutes a serving-girl bustled out from the kitchen. She smiled quickly; a well-practised, artificial smile.
‘Can I help, sir? What’s your pleasure?’
‘A pint of ale, please.’
‘Of course sir, I’ll add it to your room tab.’ She quickly poured the drink and thumped it down onto the bar, hard enough to spill some on the polished wooden surface. Without giving it a second thought, she turned away and retreated back to the kitchen.
Ryden collected the drink and carried it to a window seat, where he settled himself down to think.
Until last week he had never given any thought to his future, however in the last few days it had been at the forefront of his mind. What would he be doing in a year’s time? Or perhaps a more appropriate question would be what did he hope to be doing in a year?
Joining the army was something he had never taken any interest in. However, given recent events he was now fuelled by thoughts of justice and revenge, although the distinction between the two was becoming increasingly blurred in his mind.
He sighed and took a mouthful of the pint he was nursing. The cool, bitter ale was refreshing and had an unusual woody flavour very different to the beer old Silas used to make.
As he gazed out of the window he saw people running to and fro, clearly panicked about the recent news from the palace. Ryden’s life had been turned on its head last week but for these people the upheaval was just about to begin.
He snapped back to reality as he heard the sound of a heavy chair being dragged across the cold stone floor. He glanced up to see Carrick standing in front of him.
‘Something on your mind, old chap?’ he asked as he lowered himself into the seat opposite Ryden. ‘You looked like you were miles away.’
‘I’m sorry, I was just thinking. Why are you here?’
‘Can’t a man have a quiet beer in his local drinking establishment now?’ Carrick responded. Seeing the apologetic look on Ryden’s face, he laughed. ‘I’m just pulling your leg, Ryden. I came here to see you. We didn’t have much time to chat earlier.’
‘No, I suppose not. Well, I’m here all evening so you’ve caught me at a good time. I feel like it’s the first time I’ve stopped all week.’
‘Yes, of course, you must have been riding almost constantly. I don’t envy you; I think two days on horseback is too much for me. It takes half a day to get the feeling back in my legs but I suppose that’s the curse of old age.’
‘You’re not old,’ Ryden replied.
‘Oho, well it’s very kind of you to say so but I’m afraid I’m fast approaching fifty now. Not the spring chicken that I once was!’ He laughed again; a rich, genuine laugh that warmed Ryden’s heart to hear it.
‘So what did you want to talk about?’ Ryden asked.
‘So many things! I want to know all about your life with your father in Cadmir, as long as you’re comfortable talking about it, of course. And about your mother. And your journey here and about Melca…’ he paused, looking thoughtful for a moment, ‘…and Allisad. What does he want; why is he here? I don’t mind telling you, Ryden, that I’m rather suspicious of a Kapp who decides he wants to get close to King Rogar.’
‘Well I can’t speak for him,’ Ryden answered, ‘other than to say he has been good to us. He helped us on our journey. He says General Lazarus wants him dead, so why wouldn’t he want to help us?’
‘Hmmm. Perhaps you’re right.’
‘Carrick,’ Ryden said suddenly, ‘what did you and my father do? I found his journal after he died; it refers to you all the time but he never spoke about you.’
‘We were close friends, Ryden. Very close. We stayed in contact, even though we rarely saw each other.’
‘Yes but what was all the mysterious cloak and dagger stuff. Were you criminals?’
‘Oh, goodness… no no, not criminals! Heavens no! We were… we were the king’s aides, for want of a better term. There were nine of us in total.’ He looked around warily and then spoke in a hushed voice. ‘You are Dario’s son so I’m sure I can trust you. I know he will have brought you up well. But if I tell you this then you must swear to me that you won’t speak of it to anyone. Not even Melca and especially not Allisad.’
Ryden looked carefully at the man sat in front of him. He had so many questions about his father and this was the man that could give him all the answers. But what could be so secret that Ryden was forbidden from talking to his closest friend about it?
He took a deep breath and then answered slowly. ‘You have my word, Carrick.’