Carrick began with a question. ‘Do you know about the War of Epigios, Ryden?’
‘The war between Rejkland and Gratolia?’
’That’s right. It was so named because the first conflict took place near a small village called Epigios on the Gratolian border. I’m sure Dario has told you about it.
’The war finally finished twenty years ago but it was long and bloody and took a heavy toll. Both the Gratolian and the Rejk nations were severely depleted, with very few males between the ages of twenty and fifty left alive.
’At the time I was only a young man but I was one of the highest-ranking officers still alive when the war was over. King Tiberius, Rogar’s father, had known me for years and trusted me. He explained to me that the country could not afford another war because we were at risk of becoming under-populated, not to mention the damage to buildings, trade and the economy in general.
’Concerned about the security of our country’s future, your father and I conceived ‘the Network’. The Network was a group of people dedicated to preventing further clashes or wars in Masnia. We spent two years recruiting the other members…’
‘Two years?’ Ryden interrupted. There were only nine of you, you said. Why did it take so long?’
’We couldn’t just ask anyone. It had to be people who were in positions of influence in Rejkland, Kappland and Gratolia. Moreover, we had to be sure these individuals were utterly committed to maintaining peace so we had to speak to a huge number of people, using various ruses to ensure we knew everything about a person before speaking openly with them about our intentions.
’First we went to Kappland, which at the time was on the brink of civil war. We managed to enlist two people from each of the opposing factions, all of whom were well-respected and near the top of their respective political hierarchies. It was essential that we were extremely discreet with all communications and when we hosted the first gathering of the Network in Rektor, in a tiny cellar in a dirty backstreet, we were terrified of what the result might be.
’As it happened, once the initial fears and suspicions were allayed it proved to be a valuable meeting. It wasn’t until the third or fourth meeting that they all began to let their guards down but I think it was a testament to our selection process that these four people, with opposing ideologies, formed not just a working relationship but ultimately a friendship.
‘In some ways, I think our presence as neutral facilitators meant they were more comfortable speaking with us than with their fellow Kapps; we were distanced from their issues and above all they related to our humanitarian views.’
‘But that’s still only six people, not nine.’ Ryden observed.
’Ah, I see nothing gets past you! Well having begun these conversations, your father and I travelled to Gratolia. A year had passed since the war had officially ended, however two Rejks strolling around their capital city didn’t go unnoticed, I can tell you! However, apart from the cold reception nothing untoward happened and we were able to get three influential members of the ruling faction to join the Network.
‘Again, we chose people with humane values, driven by peace rather than power. The Network has met regularly over the past twenty years, with a lot of success. We prevented civil war in Kappland and were probably an important factor in their eventual unification. Unfortunately it was the new-found strength gained from the union that ultimately led to their invasion of Rejkland.’
‘So what happened?’ Ryden asked. ‘Why couldn’t the Network prevent this war?’
‘Sadly we were discovered. I don’t know how or by who but someone went to great lengths to ensure we couldn’t intervene. Of the six Network members who are now undoubtedly dead, I believe only one or two of them died from natural causes.’
‘So my dad was… was…’
‘Assassinated, I believe. My most sincere and heartfelt condolences to you, Ryden.’
This news left Ryden speechless for a few moments. He had always believed that his father had been a random victim, a stranger who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The realisation that his father’s death was almost certainly premeditated – that one or more people had wanted his father dead – would take some getting used to.
When he’d composed himself he reflected on Carrick’s tale. ‘Six dead? Out of nine? Aren’t you scared?’
’No no, old chap. I was afraid. Now I’m just cautious. Unfortunately, constantly looking over my shoulder has had to become a way of life for me. We still have two members in Gratolia, although they are both older than I, and there is no one in Kappland. That is why we were unable to prevent this war.’
‘My father talked about you in his journal all the time. He must have been talking about the Network, because there were others as well. Nazir, Cernos, Aranin…’
‘Cernos lives and is still in regular contact. He is employed in the king’s palace in Gratolia and as we speak he is attempting to convince the king to ally with Rejkand and to send a sizeable force to help defeat General Lazarus. Nazir and Aranin died years ago in Rektor and since then, both Mida and your father have been tracked down and killed. I would surmise that the same fate has befallen the remaining two Kappish representatives.’
Aranin was captured, wasn’t he? Do you think it was he who gave away the details of the Network?’
At this, Carrick straightened in his chair, glanced around the quiet pub and then leaned forward across the table towards Ryden.
‘Captured?’ he said in a hushed voice. ‘Why do you say that?’
’That’s what my father said in his journal. That was his last entry, the day before he died.
‘Do you have the journal?’ Carrick asked excitedly, reaching forward to take hold of Ryden’s wrist and almost knocking his drink over in the process.’
‘Er…yes, in my room here. But it doesn’t say much about…’
‘Please fetch it, Ryden. Quickly, if you don’t mind.’
‘I… of course,’ he replied, startled at the man’s change in demeanour. He rose and ducked out of the room, returning momentarily with the diary. He made as if to hand it over and then hesitated.
‘This is… was… my father’s private journal. A collection of his personal thoughts. I don’t know whether I should be sharing them. By rights I probably shouldn’t have read them myself.’
‘Ryden, your sentiment does you credit. I would expect no less and your father would be glad to see you treating his belongings with such respect. But I think you may have stumbled upon something very important to our war efforts and if that is the case then it is for the good of the country that we read this together. Do you understand?’
Ryden smiled sheepishly and nodded, passing the book to Carrick who began eagerly flicking through the pages. Every now and then he stopped, read a passage under his breath, then shook his head and continued searching.
Feeling slightly left out, Ryden took a large mouthful of his ale and idly ran his finger through the condensation on the glass. Suddenly Carrick sat bolt upright.
‘He may still be alive!’ he exclaimed, earning an odd look from the landlord who stood quietly polishing glasses behind the bar.
‘Who, my father?’ Ryden suddenly felt a rush of joy, even though he was sure it couldn’t be true; he had, after all, attended the funeral.
‘No, my dear boy, no. I’m sorry. I mean Aranin. I had naturally assumed him dead when I lost contact with him but it seems he was sharing his concerns with Dario. He feared that capture was more likely than death because there had been talk about Rejk spies in Kappland. He believed that a member of the order had confided in someone they shouldn’t and revealed other members of the movement.’
‘Who would have done that though? You were so careful with who you enlisted.’
‘I have no idea; I trusted them all implicitly. Logic suggests it was Nazir because he was the first of our order to be killed.’
‘So that’s how they found out about Dad and the others. But why haven’t they got to you, or the others in Gratolia?’ Ryden asked.
‘We must have been more careful, or luckier, or both perhaps. I have no doubt there are still people after me now. What I’m saying is that we have no evidence that Aranin is dead; therefore there is a good chance he is still alive. And if he is, then he has more hope than anyone of putting a stop to this war. He is a Kapp, born and bred and is as close to King Garro as I am to Rogar.’
‘If he is still alive, surely he would already have tried everything in his power to stop the war, including contacting you?’
‘If he were free, yes. But if he’s being held captive somewhere… look, Ryden, it may be unlikely but he’s the best chance we have. Without Gratolia, we cannot hope to hold against the united Kapp army. Even if they do ally with us, it will be a close-fought battle and many lives will be lost.’
‘It would be great if we could stop it all, Carrick, but why would Aranin’s captors keep him alive if he’s told them everything?’
‘In case he was lying. I imagine they will keep him alive until they are sure that the rest of the Network has been tracked down and killed.’
‘So what can we do?’ Ryden asked.
’I honestly don’t know. Given half a chance I would go to Rektor, find out where he is being held and stop at nothing until my old friend is free; but it is vital that I accompany the king to Halgorn. At any rate it would be foolhardy for me to go to Rektor; too many people would recognise me and I would be dead before nightfall.
‘I could recommend to the king that he send someone but to do so I would need to tell him about the Network. It has always been a policy of ours not to make our purpose known to those in power.’
‘But why? Surely he could help enormously?’
’Undoubtedly, Ryden. But what would happen years down the line? Although I have known Rogar for a very long time and have his best interests at heart, you can never truly be friends with a king. It would be too easy for him to use the Network for his own gain. Besides, would you want to explain to a king that you’ve been keeping secrets from him for twenty years?
‘No, that is not the answer. It has to be someone honourable enough to be entrusted with knowledge of the Network and unfortunately, no one comes to mind.’
‘I could go?’ Ryden suggested.
‘No,’ Carrick replied quickly. ’I could not ask you to take on such a dangerous job. You are too young and you are no warrior.
‘Is it more dangerous than travelling to Halgorn to fight hundreds of veteran soldiers? I’m a part of this war now and I could die at any time, so if there is something I can do to finish it quickly then that has to be better than dying in the front line.’
‘I don’t know, Ryden. If something happened to you then I’d never forgive myself.’
‘Well it doesn’t matter because I’m not asking your permission. I’m old enough to make my own decisions and I’ve decided that I’m going to Kappland to find Aranin. If you can help me in any way then it would be appreciated.’
Carrick laughed and shook his head. ‘You are just like your father, old boy! He was impetuous and rebellious too. Fine. Well if you absolutely insist on going, I will ensure you have maps and provisions, good horses and plenty of Kappish dakoru to see you though.’
’Dakoru? Ryden repeated. ‘Is that their money?’
‘That’s right. One dakoru is worth one guinea, one tig is equivalent to one quart and their pennies are called ru.’
‘Do they have rivers on their coins? My father had some in a coin-pouch but I didn’t know what they were.’
‘That’s right. The dakoru are square gold coins, the tigs are large and silver and the ru are copper coins that look similar to our pennies. Oh goodness! There are so many aspects of their culture that I don’t have time to explain now. But you will pick them up, Ryden, I know it. Just think yourself lucky they speak in the same tongue as us, otherwise you’d have a busy few days ahead of you trying to learn a new language!’
‘There is one thing concerning me, Carrick. I’ve just been sworn in to the Rejk army. If I leave now, I’ll be held up as a deserter.’
‘Don’t worry. I can clear that with the king easily enough. Will you ask Melca to accompany you?’
‘I think I will, although I can’t say whether he’ll want to travel all that way. He hates riding. He doesn’t even want to go to Halgorn!’
Well he’ll have to decide quickly, for you will need to leave tomorrow at the latest; even then it will take you the best part of a week to get there. Remember to only tell him what is absolutely essential about the journey and don’t mention the Network to him or anyone else.
‘Just get there as fast as you can, find out what became of Aranin and if he is alive then help him to escape from his captors. He can then go to King Garro and begin repairing the damage done by General Lazarus.’
‘You make it sound so easy,’ Ryden sighed.
Blackness. Something was thudding and throbbing. After a moment, the thudding became rhythmic and it became apparent that drums were pounding nearby. Everything ached.
Then came the light. Dazzling, streaming fiery whiteness burned the back of Paldar’s skull. He was drenched and his shoulder was on fire and still the light seared his retinas. He screwed up his eyes and took a deep breath, which shot flashes of pain through his shoulder, chest and abdomen.
If he was in this much pain, he reasoned, then he couldn’t be dead yet. That came as a bit of a surprise, so he took another deep breath.
More pain. Yes, he was definitely alive. He opened his eyes again and this time they came into focus. White and grey clouds hung in the sky above him, drifting slowly along, heedless of the tempo being set by the war-drums.
He raised his arms in front of him and counted his fingers. Well they were all there, so that was a good start. He used them to pad around the rest of his body, as if searching for a purse in an unknown pocket.
He found a lot of bruises. His arms and chest were wet and when he lifted his hands away he saw they were smeared with dark, arterial blood. A hole as big as his mouth gaped from his left shoulder, gently pulsing his lifeblood out onto his leather jerkin. He winced and almost lost consciousness again.
Think, Paldar! You’re alive but not for long. Do something.
Pressing his right hand over the hole, he fumbled around with his left hand until he found what he was looking for. Withdrawing the large cotton handkerchief he always carried from his pocket, he stuffed it into the hole in his shoulder, screaming in agony as he did so.
Once he had done that, he pulled off his left shoe with his right hand and then removed his sock. Struggling now to move his left arm, he painstakingly slid the sock under his left shoulder. Pulling the ends around his arm and folding them over the bloodstained handkerchief, he deftly tied a loose knot.
He then put one end between his teeth and grasped the other to pull the knot tight, which sent more shooting pains through his shoulder and made his eyes stream.
He repeated the motions to make a double knot that would hopefully stay in place, then dropped his head back into the mud, panting. He paused to catch his breath, then pulled himself up on his right elbow and looked around.
The fighting was now almost fifty yards ahead of him and most of the defenders were backed up against the town hall and church. The Kapp army had broken into the town’s walls on the second day and now the fighting was taking place amongst the buildings, becoming a disorganised melee of death. Around Paldar were several bodies, most of which seemed to be gathering clouds of flies.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turning to his right he saw another body, this time with a large black bird perched on its chin. To his disgust he realised the bird was patiently tugging the dead man’s eye from its socket. He vomited.
He wiped his mouth with his sleeve then shouted at the bird, attempting to shoo it away but to no avail. Instead he wrenched his eyes from the sight and swatted at the flies gathering around him. ‘I’m not dead yet!’ he shouted at them.
He forced himself into a sitting position then slowly, slowly got his feet beneath him and pushed himself up to standing. The blood rushed from his head, leaving him dizzy and nauseous. His vision swam into darkness and swirling lights before returning a few moments later.
The war-drums continued to beat, a frantic and sporadic rhythm designed to get the blood flowing and intimidate the Rejk defenders. All they did for Paldar was exacerbate his already severe headache.
He stooped and picked up the axe he’d been wielding in the battle and turned his gaze from the bloodstained blade to his wounded shoulder. He looked towards the battle-line and cursed. Deciding he’d be useless in the fray now, he turned and began to trudge back towards the city gates and out to the Kappish camp beyond.
As he walked, two of the men from his unit came running towards him and when they saw he was withdrawing they began to jeer.
‘Come on Paldar, you wuss! This is like slaughtering sheep; surely even you can manage to take some of them out?’
He shook his head and clutched at his makeshift bandage. When they noticed he was injured, one of them clapped a hand on his shoulder, causing him to cry out in pain. They started to run towards the fight again, laughing as they did so.
Paldar bit his lip and began to shake in anger, pain and frustration. Saying nothing, he hung his head and continued back towards the line of tents, tears rolling freely down his cheeks.
A couple of hours later, Melca strolled out into the main bar, bleary-eyed and still groggy from his recent awakening. He sported four days’ stubble on his chin and neck, although it only grew thin and pale, giving the appearance of just a day or two’s patchy growth.
He had changed his clothes but the shirt was creased and had been buttoned wrongly, leaving him with too much collar to the left side of his neck. The trousers were a little big for him and hung a little below his hips. As he walked, he rubbed the back of his neck with his right hand, massaging the muscles.
He cast his eyes around the room, which was getting busier now the evening was beginning to draw in, and clocked Ryden in one of the window seats, poring over a map of Masnia.
Melca stepped up to the bar, ordered two pints of ale and two glasses of whiskey, then walked over to join Ryden and slid into the seat opposite.
‘If you’re looking for the best route to Halgorn, I shouldn’t worry about it. There will be hundreds of other people going in exactly the same direction tomorrow.’
Ryden looked up, startled. ‘Oh, hi Mel. I didn’t hear you come over. Did you have a good sleep?’
‘Does it look like it?’ he moaned. ‘What I wouldn’t give for my own bed, in my own house.’
‘Thanks for the drink, pal. And a whiskey as well! You obviously don’t feel right.’ Ryden took a sip of the short and then closed his eyes and pursed his lips, trying unsuccessfully to hold back a cough.
‘I’ve got something to talk to you about, Mel. I’m not going to go to Halgorn now.’
‘That’s great!’ Melca enthused. ‘I’d much rather stay here; it’s a lot safer than anywhere else, if you ask me.’ He paused, then added, ‘but let’s find a different inn, shall we? The beds here are awful.’
’I’m not staying here either. I’m going to Rektor.’
’Rektor? Are you mad; why on earth would you want to go there? Apart from the fact that it’s miles away, it’s also the capital of Kappland!’
‘I know that, Mel, but I need to find someone. Someone who was a close friend of my father is there and I need to see him; it’s important.’
‘Is it so important that you need to risk your life for it? Why not wait until the war is over and then we can travel at our leisure.’
‘That’s working on the assumption that Rejkland will win the war.’ Suddenly conscious of their surroundings, Ryden dropped his voice. ‘There’s a strong chance we won’t, unless we find this man. He’s apparently an influential figure in Kappland.’
‘How do you know all this?’ Melca asked, matching his friend’s volume.
‘I spoke to Carrick. He can’t go himself because he’ll be recognised and killed.’
Melca was incredulous. ‘So he’s sending you to get killed in his place? Look Ry, we’ve only just met this guy. He could be talking complete nonsense for all we know. You can’t just…’
Ryden held his hand up to quieten Melca and hissed across the table, ‘my father trusted him and that’s good enough for me! I’m not asking you to come; I’m just informing you of my decision. Go to Halgorn if you like. Or stay here. Or dig a hole and hide from the world! Whatever you think’s best. But if there’s something I can do to end this war then I’m going to give it my best shot.’
A minute passed in silence. Melca downed his whiskey and then took a swig of his beer. Ryden clenched and unclenched his jaw, sorry that he had lost his temper but furious that Melca couldn’t understand his reasoning. Then Melca broke the silence.
‘I see. You don’t want me to come. You know I’m a poor rider and you think I’ll slow you down. I think that’s really callous of you, Ry, after I’ve come all this way with you already. I didn’t have to do that, you know.’
‘But you don’t want to come to Rektor! You’ve just been telling me how dangerous it is!’
‘So you think I’m spineless, is that it? Well I may be a bad rider and a terrible swordfighter but that doesn’t mean I’m a coward to boot.’
‘Then why don’t you come with me?’
‘I fully intend to, don’t you worry about that!’ Melca rose from the table in one swift movement and stormed to the bar. He rested his palms on the edge of the counter and hung his head, cursing himself for agreeing to such a suicidal journey. When the serving-girl smiled at him, he gruffly ordered a half-bottle of whiskey and returned to the table.
He quickly poured himself a glass, knocked it back and then poured another. ‘So we’re going to find this man, this friend of your father’s, right? What then? If he has the power to stop this war then why hasn’t he already done so? What makes you think that you asking him will make a difference?’
Ryden glanced up again from the maps and locked his gaze to Melca’s, then looked away. ‘He’s… I think he’s being held prisoner somewhere.’
‘I don’t know.’
’Great, Ryden. That’s just bloody great. So not only do we have to travel hundreds of miles into enemy territory but we then have to break someone out of captivity, even though we don’t have the faintest idea where he’s being held. Is there anything else I should know about? Do we have to carry a flag saying, ‘we’re Rejk, please kill us’?’
‘There is one other thing. He may already be dead.’
’And you think I’m irrational?’
‘Look, you don’t have to come.’ Ryden snapped.
‘But it sounds like so much fun!’ Melca shot back. He groaned and rolled his eyes in frustration, then broke the tension by laughing loudly. ‘Honestly, Ry, you don’t like to do things by halves, do you?’
Ryden gave a wry smile and then slumped his head into his hands. ‘I know, I know, it’s a stupid idea. But it could be vital. I don’t know what to do, Mel.’
‘Why can’t someone else do it?’
‘Only two people other than Carrick and me know about Aranin’s importance and they both think he’s dead. Besides which they both live in Gratolia and wouldn’t get to Kappland before Halgorn is attacked. Carrick can’t go because of his role in the army but he can make sure we get away without any questions being asked.’
‘But the king could send people if Carrick speaks to him and explains what’s happening.’
’I went over all this with him. He can’t tell the king because it would raise too many questions. Let me tell you what Carrick told me, Mel. By rights I shouldn’t be telling you this but if you’re coming with me then I think you need to know.
‘Carrick, Aranin and my father, along with six others, formed a secret society of peacekeepers, all of whom hold influential positions across the Masnian continent. They always tried to keep their work secret from everyone so they weren’t compromised but someone found out and killed most of them, including my dad.’
‘I thought your dad was killed by renegades?’ Melca interrupted.
‘So did I. Carrick has told me a lot of things I didn’t know about him. I found it hard to believe at first but his explanation helped me to make sense of my father’s journal. If I can find Aranin and rescue him then I can finish my dad’s work and perhaps help put an end to this war. It’s got to be worth a shot.’
‘I can’t say I like the idea, Ry,’ Melca stated. ‘But then, I wasn’t overly sold on the idea of going to Halgorn and fighting there. At least if we’re careful, we may be able to get into Rektor unnoticed and not have to fight anyone, right?’
Ryden was gazing off into the distance but turned his attention back when Melca fell silent. ‘You never know your luck.’
‘So what route are we taking? I presume that’s why you’ve got the maps out?’ Melca took a mouthful of whiskey and grimaced as the liquor burned the back of his throat.
‘Well I think we should head to Halgorn first with the rest of the army and then carry on up the west coast. As long as we take the map with us, we can work out the specifics once we get closer.’ Ryden drained his beer and then picked up the whiskey glass and swirled it in his hand. ‘It’s going to be another long day tomorrow and I don’t know when we’re going to have soft beds to sleep in again, so I think I’m going to turn in after this drink.’
Melca nodded. ’That’s true, but we also don’t know how long it’ll be before we find a good bottle of whiskey again either. So I say we get drunk tonight and let tomorrow worry about itself.
Ryden raised his glass. ‘You know what Mel? That’s the best idea you’ve had all day.’