The next morning came too quickly for Melca’s liking and although the sun was still below the horizon when he awoke, he yanked the covers up over his head in preparation for daybreak, grumbling to himself as he did so. Just as he began to drift back to sleep, there came a heavy knock on the door.
‘Wake up Mel, or you’ll miss breakfast!’ Ryden’s voice drifted through the rickety door, which was held closed by a small metal latch and a thick bolt. ‘We won’t get a good hot meal for a couple of days, so you’d better move yourself!’
Melca cursed and flung back the blankets. He sat up quickly and immediately wished he hadn’t. His head was spinning so he carefully lay back down and waited for the nausea to pass. As he did so he surveyed the room.
It was small, with only enough space for the bed and a small wardrobe that had seen better days. The ceiling, which had once been white, was now stained and yellow and there were scorch-marks on the walls where candles had been placed too close to them and had blackened the peeling wallpaper.
The window took up most of the far wall and was equally grimy. Through it, Melca could see a small garden that clearly hadn’t been tended for quite some time; the grass was two or three feet high in places and the cracked flagstones were overgrown with brambles and nettles.
Melca sat up again, gingerly this time, and swung his legs off the side of the small pallet-bed. Once his feet touched the ground he stopped motionless for several seconds, allowing his body to adjust to being upright.
When he was sure he wasn’t going to be sick, he slowly pushed himself to his feet. He noticed that he was still fully dressed from the night before but as every movement brought with it another wave of nausea, he decided against changing his clothes.
Instead he left the room and walked carefully down the narrow hallway to the main bar area, keeping his left hand on the wall for support as he did so.
As the hallway opened out into the main tavern, he was surprised to see how busy the place was. Every table was occupied and the noise from the many animated conversations did nothing to ease his headache.
He glanced around the room glumly until he caught sight of Ryden sat by the far wall, chatting to two other men who shared his table. As he approached, Ryden stood up and introduced them.
‘Mel, this is Derry and Oak; they are both riding to Halgorn today as well.’
Melca murmured a staid greeting as he sank into an empty chair.
‘Who isn’t?’ Derry added, much to the amusement of Ryden and Oak. He was a short man, with a thick brown beard and a wide smile. He was probably not much older than Melca and his large brown eyes shone with a mischievous gleam. He was picking at the last morsels of his fried breakfast, some of which had become trapped in his facial hair. Melca turned away in disgust.
The other man, Oak, was a lot older and had broad shoulders and extremely muscular arms and chest. He was well over six feet tall and looked as though he could comfortably pull a plough from dawn to dusk without even breaking a sweat.
His hair was cropped short and receding at the temples and his wide nose angled to one side, evidence that it had been broken at some point in the past and not healed correctly. His eyes were grey and cold and fine lines hatched his forehead and cheeks.
Thick eyebrows and a square jaw completed the giant’s countenance, giving him the appearance of someone who you would not want asking for your daughter’s hand in marriage but who you certainly wouldn’t say no to either.
He began to speak and his voice rumbled like distant thunder. ‘You’d better get your breakfast in quick, young man; the army marches in twenty minutes. WENCH!’
At that last word, the entire tavern fell silent momentarily and Melca nearly fell off his seat. In another part of the room a glass tankard shattered as it fell to the floor. Four serving girls ran to the table where Melca and Ryden sat with the two strangers. As they arrived, he spoke again.
‘My friend would like to place an order,’ he stated quietly, gesturing towards Melca. Melca blushed and grinned apologetically to the girl.
‘I’m not actually that hungry…’ he began, then catching Oak’s eye, he stammered, ‘b-but I’d like a small cooked breakfast please. And a glass of water.’
The four girls scurried off quickly and Melca flashed what he hoped would look like an appreciative smile toward Oak, although it felt more like a grimace.
There was a brief silence in which Melca felt extremely uncomfortable and then Ryden restarted the conversation.
‘So Derry, what do you think about going to Halgorn? Have you lived in Jalapa all your life?’
The four of them chatted for a while and Melca discovered that both Derry and Oak had grown up in this city and the journey they were about to make would be the first time outside of the capital’s walls for both of them.
Derry was a merchant’s son and ran a market stall near the main gates where Ryden and Melca had first entered the city yesterday. He was twenty-one years of age and had no family to speak of, save for a brother who he rarely saw.
Oak was a construction worker and had helped build an extension to the king’s palace twenty years ago. He spent most of his time building houses and selling them to wealthy businessmen and government officials.
He was married and had two young children, whom he was devastated to be leaving behind today. He had already said his goodbyes earlier that morning, although he knew his family would be among those that stood lining the ramparts, ready to wave off their loved ones.
Just as Melca was finishing his breakfast the church bells began to chime, signifying that the march was about to begin. Everyone in the pub, many of whom had large bags or cases with them, stood up and started to move outside. Ryden had already brought everything from his own room but waited in the bar whilst Melca rushed back to collect his saddlebags.
As they assembled in the courtyard Melca saw soldiers from the royal guard, wearing the familiar livery of a yellow lion on a blue backdrop, riding up and down trying to organise the crowds of men milling around in the heavy morning mist.
The sun was just creeping over the horizon and Melca shivered as a sharp breeze cut through his thin shirt like a knife through butter. It was small consolation that the fresh air felt less sickening than the clammy atmosphere inside the crowded tavern. He wished Ryden had let him sleep whilst the army moved off without him, giving him the perfect excuse not to go.
After standing aimlessly in the courtyard for a couple of minutes, Ryden and Melca were directed towards a small group of people lining up in ranks in front of a low thatched cottage. As they made their way over, Ryden leaned in to Melca.
‘You’re supposed to pay for your room and meals before you leave,’ he whispered conspiratorially.
Melca’s eyes widened in shock. With the mass evacuation of the bar it had completely slipped his mind to settle up. Just as he was about to dart back with some money, Ryden clapped a hand on his shoulder and started laughing.
‘I’m just messing with you mate, I paid for us both already.’
Melca breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Thanks. How much do I owe you?’
‘Forget about it,’ Ryden waved a hand dismissively. ‘Money is no object, remember?’
‘You boys!’ barked a tall man in the king’s livery, evidently the lieutenant appointed to this unit. ‘Don’t just stand there gossiping like schoolgirls! Get in formation!’
‘What kind of information?’ Ryden asked innocently, much to the amusement of the other men whom the arrogant soldier had bullied into ranks.
‘Do you think you’re FUNNY, boy? Are you trying to make a FOOL of me?’
Derry, who was already in position in front of where Melca and Ryden stood, turned and muttered under his breath, ‘it doesn’t look like he needs any help with that!’
The lieutenant, who sported a precisely groomed black moustache and had brown teeth, was anything but imposing however Ryden and Melca did as requested and stood at the back of the column. As they did so the soldier began marching up and down, inspecting the twenty-seven men stood in front of him.
‘Now listen to me. I’m sure you are all interesting and unique people here in Jalapa. But you are no soldiers. All I see is a rag-tag bunch of misfits. You,’ he said, pointing to an older man three rows in front of Ryden, ’are too old and weak to stand any chance of defeating even one of Kappland’s best.
‘You,’ this time he pointed to a boy who could have been younger than Ryden, ‘are too young to even know what to do with a sword.’ His rant continued.
‘You are too short. You are too tall. You,’ looking at Melca this time, ‘are too fat to run into battle.’
Melca, affronted by this insult, called back, ‘I’m an archer. I don’t need to run.’
‘QUIET! Did I ask for you to speak? Did I ASK for you to speak?’ He swung around to the rest of the unit, a wild look in his eye. ’When we walk out of those gates, you are a squadron! You fight together. You die together.
‘My name is Lieutenant Clark. You will obey my every command. I will not have insubordination.’
Oak stepped forward and two slow, deliberate steps with his enormous leather boots brought him nose to nose with the obnoxious lieutenant. He spoke slowly; his deep, gravelly voice rumbling past his wide lips.
‘You are a disgusting little man. You are rude, loathsome and have no right to abuse us. We are going to Halgorn to fight for our king, not for you.’
Lieutenant Clark breathed in sharply to speak but Oak continued.
’We are about to journey to Halgorn. When we get there, we will all be put into different units based on our skills. Archers, men-at-arms, scouts... we will not be in this unit and not one of us, unless he is very unlucky, will be serving under you.
‘We all have unique skills and experience to bring to this war. This gentleman, who you say is too old to be useful, is one of the best surgeons in Jalapa. One day he may save your life. So show some DAMN RESPECT!’
Oak fell silent and a cheer rose from the men gathered behind him. Ryden laughed and clapped his hands. As the lieutenant shrunk back from the towering giant, several members of the King’s Guard rode into the square on black stallions, all of which were wearing yellow and blue cloth caparisons designed to protect them against enemy arrows.
The front rider was a black man with a shaved head, broad shoulders and wide chrome bracers around his forearms. Although Ryden was aware that some races of people had dark skin, he had never before seen anyone that did and so the man looked very peculiar to him. He tried not to stare but as he turned away he saw that Melca was just as intrigued.
The man was attracting attention from everyone in the courtyard as well, although this was primarily because of the clattering his plate armour made as his horse rode over the cobbles. A murmur swept through the crowd and Ryden heard two men behind him muttering in hushed voices.
Apparently this was none other than Molokai, the king’s champion who for years had fought in the gladiator ring in Rektor, defeating countless opponents before retiring from the sport at the age of twenty-eight as a rich man.
The rider pulled on his reins and drew to a halt. As the men behind him followed suit he called out, loud enough for everyone to hear. ‘Every man who owns a horse is to gather at the west gate in twenty minutes, ready to ride.’ Without waiting for acknowledgement he kicked his horse into a run and swept away from the crowds, pursued shortly afterwards by his troop.
The thought of following this hero into battle seemed to lift the spirits of the gathered men and suddenly there was a buzz of excitement in the cold morning air. As the clamour and gossip increased in volume, Ryden clapped a hand on Melca’s shoulder and pulled him to one side. ‘Well you heard the man, Mel. Let’s ride!’
Melca groaned his reluctance to get back on a horse, then seeing that Ryden was already walking away he rolled his eyes and strode off after him to the tavern stables.
The barn was large; at least three times the size of Wilbur’s stables back in Cadmir. The room was fairly dark, lit only by the strips of sunlight streaming through the wide cracks between planks in the wooden walls. The roof was high, with thick, roughly-hewn oak beams evenly spaced across its length for support.
The place had assumed the smell of the fresh straw strewn liberally across its floor, with the faint mustiness of manure thrown in for good measure. It was not unpleasant, though, and it reminded Ryden of the farms he had visited in Cadmir and Poranthia.
There were about a dozen horses in here, all told, and Ryden felt a certain amount of pride when he realised that their horses were among the healthiest and best looking of them all. He strolled to their stall towards the back of the barn and began talking to the horses in a low voice as he approached.
Melca followed close behind and without prompting, started to pat and stroke Storm’s side and neck when he reached her. Ryden smiled to himself, glad to see Melca behaving in a much friendlier way towards the animal.
‘We’ll leave Shannon here,’ Ryden explained to his friend as he stroked the pack-horse. ‘We won’t be able to take her with us so I’ve asked the stable-hand to take care of her.’
As Melca began to groom and saddle Storm, Allisad strolled into the breezy barn, whistling a simple tune and swinging his sword by his side.
Catching sight of the boys he beamed, his eyes creasing in the corners as he did so.
‘You both managed to get yourselves out of bed then? I have to admit, after last night I had my doubts!’
Ryden laughed politely and began to prepare Rusty for the journey. Allisad continued.
‘Tell you what; I’m glad we get to ride to Halgorn. I was beginning to think they were going to make everyone walk, regardless. I have to admit, I can’t imagine why they’re going to need horsemen to defend a siege but I’m not going to complain.’
Melca spun round and snapped at him. ‘How is it that you’re always so damn happy? It’s the early hours of the morning, we’re about to ride to a war in which hundreds of men will be killed and you’re grinning like it’s a holiday at the seaside! Can’t you just be a little concerned?’
Allisad just shrugged and grinned. He fed Dave and as he reached for his saddle a thought occurred to him.
‘Is your pompous friend joining us?’ he asked casually.
‘I take it you mean Carrick?’ Ryden replied. ‘He’ll be travelling to Halgorn as well but I doubt he’ll be riding with us. I haven’t seen him yet today, anyway.’
‘I expect he’ll be escorted there in a gold-trimmed coach, with servants feeding him grapes and massaging his feet. Not like us, eh? The common foot soldiers, braving it through all weathers with nothing but the clothes on our backs.’
‘How can you say that?’ Ryden asked, a little annoyed. ‘You don’t actually know him; you’ve only met him once. I don’t think he seemed posh at all. Yes, he’s well spoken but he seems as down-to-earth as the next man. I don’t see why you have such a problem with him.’
‘Well let’s just say he wasn’t particularly respectful to me.’ Under his breath but loud enough for the others to hear, he added, ‘he wasn’t exactly complimentary about you two either.’ Turning back to Dave, he sighed dramatically. ‘But you’re right, I’m being judgmental.’
Melca opened his mouth to ask what Allisad meant but as he did so, four men barged into the stables, chatting and laughing loudly. They each approached a different horse and set about preparing them for a long ride.
The atmosphere broken, Ryden led Rusty out of the barn, with Melca and Storm walking alongside. When they got outside, Melca turned to him quickly.
‘What do you suppose he meant when he said Carrick wasn’t very complimentary about us? If we’re going on this mission to Rektor for him, you’d think he’d be grateful to us!’
Ryden raised his hand to interrupt his friend, then asked, ‘Any idea how we get to the west gate? We’ve got to be there in a few minutes.’
‘It’s this way, lads!’ a cheerful voice said behind them. Allisad had emerged from the stables and was just getting himself comfortable on Dave’s back. He grinned and rode around the side of the stables and out of sight. Cursing, Ryden and Melca mounted their horses and rode off after him.
At the west gate, Molokai sat proudly on his black stallion, surveying the crowds of horsemen crammed into the small open space between the city walls and the old stone cathedral. The ancient structure had been one of the first, and was still one of the largest, stone buildings in the entire of Rejkland.
Most of the three hundred-odd men who sat fidgeting on their restless horses were staring up at Molokai, waiting for him to give an instruction. There were several murmured conversations but there were also a large number of people who remained silent, lost in their own thoughts.
When Ryden emerged from a side street with Allisad and Melca, his jaw dropped open in surprise. He didn’t think he had ever seen this many people gathered together in one place, let alone mounted on horseback.
It was a shambolic vision, with horses of all colours, breeds and sizes clustered together, straddled by riders that looked equally varied. Some wore chainmail or full plate armour, some wore thick leathers and still others had no armour to speak of and sat shivering in shirts and leggings, their breath misty in the morning air.
As the three of them came to a halt a few feet behind two men on dappled grey mares, the enormous cathedral bell chimed six times. When it had finished, Molokai’s deep voice boomed loudly enough for all to hear.
’Good morning, men of Jalapa. For those of you that don’t know me, I am Molokai Armstrong, Horsemaster General of King Rogar’s army of Rejkland. I will be leading you to victory against the vicious hordes of Kipper scum.
‘In a moment, we will divide into five units. The men you ride with will be your comrades for the duration of the campaign. Your sergeant will be one of the following,’ he gestured to the men alongside him who each wore the same armour as he did and whose pitch-black steeds carried the same livery; ’Geraint, Bartol, Avram, Rhun or myself.
’If you receive an order from any of us, you will be expected to obey. Many of you will not have been part of this army before but it is crucial that we maintain order. Otherwise we will fall into disarray on the battlefield and if that happens then we are all doomed.
‘On the journey my fifth sergeant, Salem, will be handpicking individuals for the king’s fifty. These elite troops will then have the honour of leading attacks and forming the backbone of any strategy the general proposes.’
As Molokai’s words resonated off the city walls, the sergeants rode through the mass of horses, each segregating a group of riders that would become their legion. Once a unit was defined, it was led outside the gates by the officer who would then proceed to brief the men and give specific orders regarding personal rules and policies.
When four sections of the crowd had been led out of the city, Ryden glanced over at Melca and Allisad.
‘Looks like we’re riding with the boss!’ Allisad observed as Molokai rode towards the sixty or so remaining men. As he drew close, he picked out a young boy near the front of the throng who had curly brown hair and a leather jerkin that was far too big for him.
‘What’s your name, boy?’ he asked.
‘G-Garvin,’ he stammered, then the man next to him hissed something under his breath and the boy added, ‘Sir! Garvin sir!’
Well, Sir Garvin Sir, it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ Molokai replied. ‘How old are you?’
‘And what do you do?’
‘I’m a fishmonger, sir.’
‘A fishmonger, eh? That’s a good, honest trade. Do you enjoy the work?’
Although Molokai was talking directly to the boy in a conversational tone, the remaining men sat listening in rapt silence.
‘I have no complaints, sir. It keeps me busy, and the devil makes work for idle hands, so they say.’ He paused and then hurriedly added ‘sir!’
‘Good. I like you, Garvin. I think you will do extremely well with us. No doubt this will all be very new to you,’ Molokai said, raising his arms and gesturing to the surrounding troops, ‘so if you are ever scared or concerned, come and talk to me. I don’t want you worrying yourself to death.’
The surprise on the boy’s face was evident. His jaw hung open and his eyes bulged but he quickly mustered enough control to say ‘th-thank you sir. I will, sir.’
Molokai turned to the others and spoke in the same, measured tones. ’I want you all to be successful. I want you all to build your strength and confidence and return home to your loved ones with pride, safe in the knowledge that your deeds brought peace to Rejkland.
’We will only achieve this if you are disciplined. I know you are not warriors. I do not expect you to be expert swordsmen, archers or riders. What I do require is that you are determined to succeed; that you brave the battle regardless of the odds.
‘I hope you will also support each other and treat each member in this unit as an old friend. I will not have you fighting between yourselves when your quarrel should be with Kappland. Most importantly, you must recognise that I have your best interests at heart and so every order I give will have had due consideration and therefore must be obeyed. Am I clear?’
A rumble swept through the crowd and several men immediately called, ‘sir, yes sir.’ Realising the protocol, most of the other riders quickly followed suit.
‘I will need two lieutenants to lead twenty men each,’ he continued. ‘Who here is familiar with formation riding?’ One man raised his hand.
‘Shepherd, I didn’t see you there,’ Molokai said, grinning. ‘What did I do to deserve your company on the march?’
The man laughed. Clearly the two of them knew each other well. ‘Whatever it was sir, it can’t have been as bad as what I did to end up under your command!’
‘Well as you’re my only option I guess you’ll have to do.’ Scanning the assembled men, he called out, ‘one more? Surely someone here has led a hunt?’
No one moved. It was a great opportunity to become a leader but Ryden knew he could not satisfy the post. Besides, he and Melca would be leaving the regiment when they reached Halgorn and he wanted to be able to slip away unnoticed.
Slowly, Allisad raised a hand. Molokai caught sight of him and for a moment there seemed to be a glint of recognition in his eyes but he frowned and it passed.
‘Yes, excellent. What is your name, soldier?’
‘Algernon, sir, but folk call me Al.’ Ryden recognised the fake accent he’d used to get into Jalapa yesterday.
‘Well that’s fine for dinner parties but in the army you will be addressed by your surname like everyone else. What is your second name?’
‘Don’t have one, sir.’
‘Then I shall call you Black, for the colour of your hair.’
‘Begging your pardon, sir, but my hair’s brown,’ Allisad replied.
‘Oh! Well then shall I call you Brown? Or would you prefer Chestnut? Mousey, perhaps?’
‘Brown will be fine, sir. It’s a good name, thank you.’
‘Very well. So, Brown, what is your experience of horses?’
‘I’ve led horse warriors before, sir. Years ago.’
‘Really?’ Molokai seemed surprised. ‘In the army?’
‘Yes sir,’ Allisad nodded. ‘Only in training,’ he added quickly, ‘I’ve not been in a battle or nothing, sir.’ Ryden tried to suppress a smile as Allisad used the local colloquialism in his speech.
Molokai frowned again and cocked his head slightly, as if trying to place a familiar face. ‘Have we met before, Brown?’
‘Shouldn’t have thought so, sir, not unless you’ve been to Sharbury recently?’
‘Never mind. You’ll do, Brown, as long as you follow my orders to the letter.’ Turning back to the assembled group, he raised his voice. ‘We ride in ranks, four abreast. I’ll take the front third, Lieutenant Shepherd will take the back third and Lieutenant Brown will hold the centre. Form up, men.’
Most of the riders began to edge their horses forward and Allisad and Lieutenant Shepherd stood their horses on either side of the front men, no more than six yards apart so that the riders had to fall into rank to pass. As they were doing this, another two riders emerged from behind the cathedral and raced over to where the men were filing into ranks.
As they drew nearer, Ryden recognised Derry and Oak. Derry was riding a dappled grey stallion of some eighteen hands, whereas Oak looked extremely out of place on a mare of no more than fifteen. They arrived, panting, next to Ryden just as he and Melca rode past Allisad and into the formation. Behind them the remaining twenty or so riders quickly fell into line.
Ryden turned to Derry, surprised. ‘I didn’t know you had horses.’
‘We didn’t,’ Derry replied, ‘but my uncle did and he never rides them any more, what with his bad hip and everything, so I managed to sweet-talk him.’ He flashed a cheeky smile. ‘Besides, we didn’t want to stay with that idiot Clark whilst you guys have all the fun here!’
Ryden laughed. ‘Well I don’t know how much fun it’s going to be but it’s good to see you anyway.’ He glanced back at Oak, whose enormous legs hung so far down his horse’s flanks that they were almost dragging along the floor.
The big man clapped a hand on Melca’s back, causing him to wince and straighten up sharply. ‘So, Melca, do you feel a bit better with some food in your belly?’
‘I, er, I guess so. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.’
Oak laughed; the sound reminiscent of a boulder rolling down a cliff-face. ‘You’re right there boy, it’s going to be a fair old journey and no mistake.’
The lumbering behemoth had really taken to Melca, although the baker could not for a second imagine why. Instead he giggled nervously and tried to make conversation. ‘It’s a n-nice horse,’ he stuttered.
‘Ha! You’re a tease, Mel!’ the giant boomed. ‘You know how to have a laugh though; I like that. Derry insisted on taking the best horse himself, so I’m left with this tiny thing. I reckon when we get halfway we’ll swap roles and I’ll need to carry her!’
The horse was wide-eyed and Melca thought her legs would buckle at any minute. Without thinking, he asked, ‘what if she doesn’t make it that far?’
Suddenly serious, Oak’s smile vanished and he locked his cold grey eyes onto Melca’s blue ones. ‘Are you saying I’m fat?’ he growled in an undertone. Melca’s heart jumped into his throat as he desperately sought a defence, not knowing how to explain away the comment.
Then Oak’s face broke into another heart-warming smile and he clapped his hand onto Melca’s shoulder, causing him to sway in the saddle. ‘Gotcha!’ he exclaimed delightedly and Melca breathed an enormous sigh of relief. ‘We have such a laugh, you and me,’ Oak chuckled. ‘There won’t be a dull moment between here and Halgorn, I don’t suppose!’
He beamed at Melca, who was still recovering. The baker just gave a high-pitched laugh and swallowed quickly, his heart pounding in his chest.
By now the rest of the riders had fallen into rank and Molokai’s voice rang out across the clearing. ’We are a regiment 59-strong, including your lieutenants and myself. We will be called Claw troop and we will be the best fighting regiment in the entire of Rejkland when your training is complete.
‘You answer to me and you answer to Lieutenants Shepherd and Brown. Any questions?’ He paused for no more than a few seconds – certainly not enough time for anyone to raise any queries – before continuing. ‘Then we ride!’ he shouted, kicking his stallion into a fast trot without waiting for the riders of Claw troop to follow.