It was a cool night in Khaviz and the lack of clouds meant the stars were piercingly bright. The moon was almost full and it illuminated the small garden with a cold light, easily bright enough for John to see the other end of the lawn, where his grandfather was fumbling with a strange set of objects.
They were called firrawoks, apparently, and they were another strange invention Balenor had read about in his book about the Ancients. They were cylindrical tubes filled with a black powder and according to the old man they would paint the sky with colour. John was sceptical; how would they be able to see if the sky changed colour at night?
Balenor rose from where he had been squatting and briskly strode back to where the boy was sitting, perched on a wooden bench at the top of the overgrown garden. As he did so, John noticed that part of the firrawok was glowing.
‘And now, my boy, we stand back and wait!’ Balenor said, a broad smile spreading across his timeworn face.’
‘What’s going to happen, Gramps?’ John started to ask, but before he’d finished speaking, something bright and fiery leapt out of the firrawok and flew into the air with a whooshing noise. John jumped so hard he almost fell off the bench and he looked at his grandfather with a combination of fear and wonderment.
Then, suddenly, there was an explosion in the air, hundreds of yards above them. From the centre of the explosion, twenty blazing orange tendrils splayed out and then faded into darkness just as they began to drop towards the earth.
What John found even more peculiar than the beautiful display of light was that the noise of the explosion didn’t come until a few seconds after the trailing lights had spread from the centre of the blast. He posed the question to Balenor.
’Well, laddie, the reason is that you don’t see or hear things immediately as they take place. You only notice them when the message has reached your eyes or ears. The light from the firrawok travels to your eyes in a split-second; however it takes longer for the sound to reach your ears.
‘It’s the same with any noise,’ he continued, ‘however it’s more noticeable when the event takes place a long way away. Think of a thunderstorm. Unless it’s very close by, you will always see the lightning before you hear the thunder. Stay here a moment and I’ll prepare the next firrawok.’
As he spoke, he dashed off to the end of the garden again and with his tinderbox he proceeded to light the fuses of two more firrawoks before retreating back to a safe distance. This time, the lights in the sky were green and red and each trailing glow from the initial blast exploded again into a secondary bloom.
John gazed upwards, awestruck, as the light show continued for several minutes. Balenor kept rushing forward, setting fire to the cylinders and standing back to admire them. Some of the firrawoks squealed as they shot into the air, others stayed on the ground and sprayed coloured sparks like a blade being sharpened on a blacksmith’s whetstone.
Just as a particularly loud blast had faded away, John heard some shouts from down the street. As he listened, he recognised the words ‘sorcery’ and ‘witchcraft’. His grandfather’s face had changed from an expression of glee and contentment to a picture of terror. He quickly scooped up the remaining firrawoks in his arms and rushed inside, ushering John in front of him as he did so.
No sooner had he slammed the back door than he heard a hammering on the front door and a chorus of shouting voices.
‘Come out, witch! Repent or die!’ came the furious cries.
‘Quickly,’ he hissed to John, ‘gather up your most important belongings and throw them in a bag. If you get caught by witch hunters, they will always find you guilty regardless of whether you’ve done anything wrong.’
As John rushed to collect a few items of clothing, Balenor stood in the centre of the small living room, agonising over which of his precious artefacts he should salvage.
BANG BANG BANG! The door juddered with every knock and the shouting was growing louder. John had finished filling his satchel bag and was now pulling on his grandfather’s arm. ‘How are we going to get away from them, Gramps?’
Balenor pulled at the rug in the centre of the lounge, revealing a square wooden trapdoor about two feet wide. He took hold of a large iron ring recessed into the wood and heaved the trapdoor open, revealing a dark void beyond. A musty smell drifted up from the darkness, along with a chill draught that sent a shiver down John’s spine.
‘Wow, you’ve got a secret room!’ he said with wonder, then more hesitantly he added; ‘what is it though? Does it go anywhere?’
Balenor quickly lit a candle and held it to the opening, revealing a set of wooden steps leading down into the cellar beyond. ‘Climb down there quickly, boy, and I’ll show you.’
Handing over the candle, the old man quickly scooped up several books, a couple of strange looking items from the dresser and various other tools such as a penknife and a compass. He hastily threw them into a bag and passed it down to John.
As he did so he heard an immense thud, accompanied by a cracking noise. One of the witch hunters was throwing himself at the door, trying to break it down. Seconds later, Balenor heard a crash followed by the tinkling of broken glass and realised they had broken the kitchen window.
He leapt onto the steps leading down into the cellar and yanked at the rug until it covered both him and the floor around him. He slammed the trapdoor shut and the rug above it slid into place just as the front door gave way and several men plunged through the doorway into the room.
The Coach House Inn in Jalapa was crowded and there weren’t nearly enough chairs for everyone so large groups of people were standing in the centre of the room, holding tankards aloft and puffing on cigars and pipes. The only topic of conversation amongst the various groups was the long trip to Halgorn tomorrow, followed by the battle that would ensue when the Kapp army arrived.
Only bachelors were here tonight. Men with wives and children were at home, spending their last precious hours with their loved ones, not knowing when or even if they would see them again.
Come tomorrow, the great city of Jalapa would look all but deserted, with no men present between the ages of sixteen and fifty save for the handful of soldiers who were staying home to guard the capital city.
The pub was noisy but rather than being full of merriment as it so often was, there was a deep sense of foreboding and laughter was sparse. Music was being played but the ditties and folk songs had been abandoned in favour of ballads and laments. The yellow firelight was not enough to counter the chill of the whistling wind in the darkness outside and in the far corner, part-hidden in shadow, Melca shivered.
’So what I’m saying,’ Ryden continued, ‘is that if dogs really did exist then they wouldn’t live in the plains because there’s nothing but dried earth out there. If there were any, they’d be on the coastline because at least there’s water and vegetation there.’
There were hundreds of stories about mythical beasts that supposedly lived in the less-populated parts of Rejkland, including vampires, bears and the sasquatch. Most common of these were the legends of dogs.
There were huge areas of the country where humans rarely dared to go because of the rumours of savage packs of dogs that were so fast they could outrun horses. Every village across the country had a story to tell, some of which told of dogs venturing into the towns and attacking sheep or cattle.
‘Well I just hope we don’t run into any, Ry. There’s a lot of empty space between here and Rektor and I don’t want to end up as a dog’s dinner.’
‘Look,’ Ryden sighed impatiently, ‘you’ve got more chance of finding a tribe of naked nymphomaniacs with sunburnt breasts than of seeing anything resembling a dog.’
‘Thass more like it.’ Melca grinned and took a long swig of his beer before burping loudly. ‘That almost makes it worth going.’
Ryden pushed his chair back and stood up clumsily, steadying himself on the table. ‘Nature calls,’ he mumbled, before weaving his way through the clouds of smoke and clusters of people towards the back door and the outhouse beyond.
Melca swigged his beer again and put it down a few inches from its previous spot. Wherever he rested the glass it left a ring of condensation, so he moved the glass again a few times until he had drawn a face on the table.
‘Hey, Mel. How are you feeling?’ Melca looked up quickly as Allisad sat down opposite him and smiled. ‘Looking forward to the big march tomorrow?’
Melca looked back into his beer glass and said nothing.
‘I can see you’re not that enthusiastic about it. Look, I know the prospect of war isn’t that appealing but if we’re going to fight somewhere then Halgorn’s the best place for it. The fortifications are immense, from what I’ve heard.’
Melca rested his chin on his hand and his eyes began to converge, making him look cross-eyed. ’Doesn’t matter. S’not important ‘cos we’re not staying anyway.’
‘Why not?’ Allisad asked, suddenly intrigued.
Melca straightened his back and sat bolt upright. ‘Can’t say. Iss a secret.’
‘Look, Mel, if you guys don’t want to fight, you’re not alone. Most of the men in here are scared. But if you desert the army then you’re as good as dead anyway. You’ll be outlawed.’
‘Like you?’ Melca countered.
Allisad jumped to his feet in anger, knocking the chair over in the process. He took a deep breath and regained his composure, then picked up the chair and sat back down again, all the while keeping eye contact with Melca.
‘Yes, I suppose that is what I did. But I had good reason to do so and besides, that’s in the past now. I just don’t want to see you and Ry make the same mistake.’
‘Well don’t worry, we won’t,’ Melca replied gruffly.
‘So what are you going to do then, Mel? Come on, humour me.’
‘Can’t tell you,’ he stated simply. ‘Iss a secret mission.’ He downed the rest of his drink and then fumbled in his pocket to see if he could afford another pint. He scooped a handful of coins onto the table and cursed as a couple of them rolled onto the floor. As he scrambled down to pick them up, Ryden returned to the table.
‘Hi Alli. Didn’t know you were back. I’m going to grab another drink; do you want one?’
Melca’s voice drifted up from down near Ryden’s feet. ’I’ll get ‘em, Ry.’ He crawled out from under the table with a handful of coins and pulled himself to his feet. ‘Gotta go that way anyway.’
As he stumbled off towards the outhouse, Ryden sat down and noticed Allisad’s puzzled expression. ‘Are you all right?’
Allisad blinked and shook his head. ‘Yes. Yes I’m fine, thanks.’
‘He didn’t tell you his pig joke, did he?’
‘Probably for the best. He never was very good with jokes. So what’s up?’
‘I’m fine Ry, just thinking about tomorrow. It’s going to be strange, staying in Halgorn, isn’t it?’ he mused, hoping Ryden would shed some light on his plans.
Ryden frowned. ‘Well I guess so, yeah.’
‘I mean, staying for weeks in a new city,’ he continued. ‘Do you know where you’re going to be staying yet?’
‘I’m sure they’ll have that sorted, Alli, won’t they? We shouldn’t need to worry about that.’
‘You’re probably right,’ Allisad replied. ‘It depends how long you’re there for, of course, on where they put you. You’ll be there the whole time though I guess, won’t you? You and Melca, I mean.’
‘Don’t see why we wouldn’t be. Why, won’t you?’
Oh yeah. Yeah, I’ll be there the whole time.’
‘Hmm.’ Ryden found the conversation a little confusing but assumed that Allisad had also been drinking heavily and this was just the beer talking.
He found the amiable Kapp to be a peculiar companion. On the whole he was very enthusiastic, bubbly and full of life yet at times he was melancholy and antisocial, even cold towards Ryden. Sometimes it seemed he wanted nothing more than to spend time with the boys but then there were occasions when Ryden felt like he was nothing more than an inconvenience to the veteran soldier.
Across the table the man was now gazing out of the window, watching cold rivulets of rain trickling down the glass. The heat in the crowded room had caused condensation to build up, so it was impossible to see anything outside other than the weak, flickering lights from the lampposts.
Ryden had never seen lampposts before coming to Jalapa, although he thought they were an excellent idea. Each one consisted of a small glass lantern, hung from the top of a tall stake that had been driven into the ground. The large candle inside each lantern had three wicks, so that if one or two of the flames blew out, there was still enough light to see by.
The Kapp’s expression was blank and his attention was being held by whatever daydream he was lost in. He sighed and propped his head up with one hand, whilst idly supping his ale with the other.
Ryden noticed for the first time that his comrade had a thin scar running from just below his ear to his jugular notch, and wondered how he had got it.
With the exception of the scar, the man looked fairly normal. He had a large, pointed nose and bushy dark eyebrows that threatened to meet in the middle. His deep brown hair was just long enough to cover the tops of his ears, although where he had recently come in from the rain it was plastered flat against his face and looked almost black.
He jerked back to life as Melca returned, clumsily trying to carry three pints of ale and succeeding only in spilling beer all down his hands, his clothes and the floor. Slamming them down on the table, he gave a lopsided grin and collapsed into a chair.
‘Funny, issn’ it?’ he remarked. ‘No matter how careful you are, you always end up dripping some down your legs.’
‘I really hope you’re talking about the beer,’ Allisad replied, laughing.
The cellar of the small house was cramped and stank of rat droppings and mould. It was also so damp that parts of the roof dripped with stagnant water, beneath which thick patches of slippery green moss had grown.
It was cold and John was scared. He had never been down here before and it was horrible. Why Gramps had insisted they hide down here was beyond him; clearly this was all just a misunderstanding. But when he had asked the question, he had been told to stay absolutely silent and follow closely behind the old man, who even now was weaving his way through a cold, stone tunnel ahead of him.
Balenor held a rusty lantern tightly in his left hand, whilst his right hand grasped the neck of the bag that was slung over his shoulder. Above them they could hear clattering sounds, as the men hunting them searched through the rooms of the small house.
John wanted to ask more questions but he remembered his grandfather’s instructions and bit his lip. Instead he lowered his own lantern and scrambled even faster across the uneven stone slabs covering the floor of the cellar.
Every step he took echoed loudly down the tunnel and he was convinced that the men above them would hear and come down into the cellar to chase them. But as far as he could tell, they were alone down here.
Alone, that is, except for the rats and probably all manner of other creatures that made their homes down here. Everything was overgrown, eroded and in a general state of disrepair. He guessed that no one had been down here for years, perhaps even decades; yet Gramps seemed to know where he was going.
John’s heart was racing and even with the small lantern he’d been given he could barely make out anything more than a few feet ahead of him. Suddenly he slipped on some unseen hazard and stumbled, landing hard on his left knee. He cried out in pain and rolled into a sitting position, clenching both his hands around his leg.
It felt as though his kneecap had split in two and he could feel warm blood oozing through his trousers. He tried to straighten his leg and winced as he felt the joint click under his hands. Balenor had scrambled back to where he’d fallen and was now kneeling beside him, talking in a low voice.
‘I’m sorry, John, I didn’t mean to rush on ahead. How bad is it? Do you think you can carry on?’
As he spoke they heard a shout from back at the house. It must have been at least a hundred yards behind them by now but they could clearly hear the scraping of furniture being dragged across the wooden floorboards of the living room.
‘It really hurts, Gramps. I think it might be broken.’
Knowing it wouldn’t be, Balenor took hold of the boy’s leg and wiggled it from side to side. ‘Does that hurt?’ he asked softly and then nodded when the answer was negative. ‘You haven’t broken it, boy, just given it a nasty knock.’
His reassurance was interrupted by the sound of heavy footfalls on wooden steps and instantly his panic returned. Tying his bag around his chest, he hoisted his grandson into his arms and began running back down the tunnel, away from the cellar and the witch hunters who he knew were minutes behind them.
He had not gone more than twenty yards before he heard the shout behind him. ‘This way, Elroy! I can see a light down there!’
He tried to summon another burst of speed but his muscles were already burning. He was not unfit considering his age but he was a little overweight and his joints ached. The cold down here in the dank cellar didn’t help matters and every step he took sent shooting pains through his knees.
But he forced himself onward. John was clinging to him for dear life and he could feel the boy sobbing in his arms. He cursed himself for being so stupid. Until now he had always been so careful with his experiments but when he found out about firrawoks they seemed fascinating and he just had to make some.
And it was beautiful, he thought to himself as he scrambled through the narrowing tunnel. If only he could explain to the mob behind him that it was technology, not witchcraft, that had created the sky-flowers, then he wouldn’t have to run through a dingy, wet, stinking tunnel beneath the town.
But he might as well wish that night were day. Most people in this town thought anything they didn’t understand was caused by witchcraft. If they found a new freckle, it was witchcraft. If there was snow in spring, it was witchcraft. If someone grew a vegetable that even slightly resembled part of the male anatomy, it was witchcraft.
A bellow from somewhere behind him brought Balenor’s thoughts back to the present with a jolt. They must be close behind now. Not only would they be younger and more agile than he but they were also unburdened, whereas he had to watch every move he made to ensure he protected his grandson’s head from the lumps of rock jutting from the jagged walls.
‘How is your leg now?’ he panted to John, his breathing ragged.
Knowing that his grandfather was struggling, John swallowed and said through his tears; ‘I can run now, Gramps.’
Lowering the boy to the ground, he pressed the lantern into John’s hand and pushed him forward. ‘Just keep running, son; I’ll keep up,’ he wheezed. He risked a glance over his shoulder and wished he hadn’t.
No more than fifty feet behind him, he could make out the shapes of at least three men holding flaming torches that cast dancing shadows around the walls. They were ragged, bearded and dirty and didn’t look like the kind of people you’d bring home to meet your mother. They were also shouting out obscenities that would make a tanner blush.
Balenor coughed; a racking cough that shook his whole frame and he felt as though his lungs were on fire. You’re too old for this, he told himself but then he considered the alternative and another surge of adrenalin coursed through him.
And then he looked up and blanched. In front of him, not ten yards ahead, was a solid wall. Dread began to seep into his mind like the stagnant water that was seeping into his boots. A rockfall must have blocked the tunnel some time ago and now there was no escape. His heart leaped into his throat as all the horrific tales of witch-hunts that he had heard over the years came flooding back.
It was common knowledge that any alleged witches were tortured until they confessed (which any sane human would do to make the pain stop), after which they were burned at the stake. There was no negotiating, no reasoning, no bargaining. Just torture followed by death.
Whilst his mind was reeling, John’s voice came through the cloud of darkness that threatened to overcome him. ‘Which way? Which way Gramps?’
Blinking twice and shaking off the terror that engulfed him, he reached the rockfall and suddenly understood what the boy was asking. Instead of the dead end he had expected, he found that the path split left and right.
The path to the left was narrow and the opening only started two feet above the ground level. To all intents and purposes it looked like a fissure in the rock, although he could smell fresh air issuing from it.
The path to the right was as wide as the tunnel they were currently standing in and from it they could hear sounds from the street above, such as cats fighting and the wind whistling over thatched roofs.
Balenor made his decision and quickly lifted John into the fissure on the left, pushing him through and then scrambling to haul himself up. It was an extremely tight fit and for one terrifying moment he thought he was stuck. But then a piece of rock fell away under his hip and he managed to pull his legs through and tuck them up beneath him.
He cast his eyes around him and saw they were sat in a narrow chamber, about three feet wide and five feet high, with another narrow tunnel leading off on a gradual upward slope beyond them.
There were several stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the cavern that constantly dripped icy water into small puddles beneath them, making a clop-clop sound as the noise echoed off the wet, shimmering walls. Balenor sat for a moment with his back against the rock, knowing they had to push on but physically unable to summon the strength.
They heard the men getting closer and Balenor realised they were cursing. Without a second thought he snatched the lantern up and extinguished it, then grabbed John’s wrist firmly to communicate that he needed to stay absolutely still.
As the voices got louder their words became audible and Balenor heard them talking about what looked to be a dead end. His heart was hammering so hard that it seemed they would hear it, although he knew that was ridiculous and instead focussed on keeping his breathing as quiet as possible.
The witch hunters reached the split in the tunnel and Balenor silently clenched his fist, ready to strike out if the men tried to climb through into the alcove where the two of them were hiding.
He needn’t have worried. The men paused only for a moment or two before heading off down the right fork, their voices fading as they got further away from where Balenor and his grandson were hiding.
Balenor slowly tilted his head back to rest on the hard rock behind him and let out a silent sigh of relief. The imminent danger had passed.