Balenor and John had stayed in the cavern for several hours after their pursuers had gone, so by the time they finally emerged into the small town of Khaviz it was lit by a dazzling red sunrise.
The old stone buildings of the ancient town were silhouetted against the skyline and were it not for the seriousness of their current plight, Balenor would have been tempted to fetch his sketchbook and draw the view.
Instead, however, he and his grandson cowered under a hedgerow, their old clothes now scratched and torn. Their hands and faces were gashed and bruised and they were both soaking wet and covered with mud and green slime.
They hadn’t slept and John was finding it hard to keep his eyes open but Balenor still had adrenalin surging through him. He had decided on a course of action whilst they were sat silently in the dank cave and now it was time to put that plan into motion.
First, he led John along the side of the hedgerow until they came to a row of houses. Some of them already had the curtains open but when he reached a house that was still and quiet he listened at the window. Satisfied that no one was moving around inside, he tried the front door.
Finding it unlocked he crept inside the house, leaving John standing in shadow in the narrow gap between the buildings. He returned a moment later carrying a loaf of bread and two apples, with two long brown curtains slung over one shoulder.
He had already explained to his grandson that it would be unsafe to return home but even so his conscience plagued him for setting such an awful example for the boy. Pushing his morals to one side, he gave John one of the curtains to wear and draped the other around his own shoulders, leaving enough slack to pull the seam over his brow as a hood.
This done, they began to tuck into the food as Balenor took John by the hand and walked quietly past the houses and on down the pebble-covered road.
They continued on for several minutes until they reached the village square. Hearing a commotion, Balenor pulled the boy into a side alley and stood silently with his back to the wall, listening.
‘I alvays said zere vas something wrong viz zat man, you know,’ the voice echoed off the cold stone walls, rich with an accent that was common in some of the more rural parts of Kappland. ‘All zem strange contraptions and so on.’
‘But a witch? Who’d have thought there would be a witch living in a small town like this?’
Holding John in place with one hand, Balenor carefully peered around the corner to see what was happening. There were eight or nine people milling around, speaking to one another in hushed voices. Something had obviously caused quite a stir and a moment later he saw what it was.
A large poster was mounted on the side of the water-well that read ‘BEWARE OF THE WITCHES’. Beneath the header were the names ‘Balenor and John’ and two sketches that bore a resemblance to them but had been contorted to make them look unnatural and evil. At the bottom of the poster were the words, ‘REWARD FOR CAPTURE, DEAD OR ALIVE.’
Balenor gasped and ducked back out of sight. Not wanting to alarm the boy, he put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and just said, ‘we need to keep moving I’m afraid.’
He led him to the opposite end of the alley and they began moving stealthily from building to building, freezing whenever they heard the slightest noise. When they had put some ground between them and the centre of town, he stopped and squatted on his haunches so he was at eye-level with John and smiled apologetically.
‘The men who think we are witches are still looking for us. Do you think you can run for a short while?’
John’s eyes were wide with fright but he clenched his grandfather’s hand tightly and nodded.
‘I’m sorry, John. I never meant for any of this to happen. We’ll go to Rektor; they’ll not find us there.’
‘But Gramps, you said Rektor was seething with criminals, outcasts and lowlifes!’
‘I know, laddie, I know. But we’re outcasts now.’
The boy wrapped his arms around the old man, hugging him tightly. After a minute or two he released his grandfather, then pulled the brown curtain tightly around his shoulders and began to run.
When Claw troop had set off there had been a buzz of excited conversation amongst the men but by noon they were riding in near silence, broken only by the occasional muttered complaint about the heat, or about saddle sores for the less experienced riders amongst them.
Ryden was secretly pleased to see that Melca was not one of the complainants; in fact after a week in the saddle he now seemed more adept than a lot of the men riding with them.
Occasionally he would catch the baker absent-mindedly stroking Storm’s neck and speaking softly to her, which amused him when he thought about how disgusted Melca had been at the prospect of riding when they left Cadmir.
The land they rode on was flat and covered in dry grass. It didn’t seem to be a problem for most of the horses, which had been bred for strength and endurance, but many of the riders were unused to travelling for such long periods of time.
Garvin, the young fishmonger, was one of the least experienced. He was riding in front of Ryden and the smith watched him as he constantly shifted his position in the saddle. After continuing for several minutes in a low field with no breeze, the boy let out an exasperated sigh and began to remove the thin woollen jumper he was wearing.
As he did so, the horse veered away from the pack and once he was several feet away from the others he began to speed up. Allisad, who was responsible for the boy, was currently riding on the other side of the column, so he quickly swung his own steed about in order to ride around the back of the horses and catch up with the boy.
When Garvin pulled the jumper away from in front of his eyes and saw what was happening, he grasped for the reins that he had let fall in his lap. He tried to control the horse but the beast was too powerful for him and broke into a run.
Allisad kicked Dave into a gallop and chased after the runaway horse, watching with concern as the boy bounced around in the saddle. He could see Garvin pulling on the reins as hard as he could but it was clearly having no effect and the horse was starting to buck.
The rest of the regiment had slowed their pace and were watching the boy with concern. Molokai grasped his own reins as if to take up the chase but then saw that his lieutenant was already on the case and so he sat back and watched with interest.
Allisad stood up in the stirrups and began to race towards the boy. Fortunately Dave was faster than the boy’s steed, so it wasn’t long before he drew up alongside. Taking Dave’s reins in his left hand, he reached over with his right and grabbed the mare’s reins from Garvin’s shaking hands. He pulled the mare to a halt and then turned her and led her back to the waiting riders, reassuring the boy as he did so.
‘Don’t worry, lad. She’s a temperamental beast by the looks of her and perhaps a little large for you. Is she yours?’
‘She’s my grandfather’s,’ the boy confessed, ‘and I’ve not been riding long. When he was teaching me he would walk alongside me and hold the reins but when war broke out he gave her to me. He’s old and crippled and can’t go to war himself.’
‘You must be scared,’ Allisad said gently, riding close to the boy and steering the two horses simultaneously. The boy shrugged, determined not to reveal his emotions. Instead he just ran his fingers under the front of the saddle and allowed the veteran rider to lead him back to the regiment.
‘Look, there’s no shame in being scared. Every man in that army is scared; it’s what you do with that fear that counts. If you give in to it then it becomes a burden. But if you face it, if you use it as fuel to drive you forward, then it is a valuable tool.’
‘Are you scared, sir?’ Garvin asked timidly.
Allisad hesitated. In truth, he had seen so many battles that they were a thrill for him but he realised the truth was perhaps not what the boy needed to hear. Instead he answered, ’Yes. I’m scared too. But I have to pretend I’m not so these men can follow me with confidence.
‘So that is our secret, Garvin. I won’t tell anyone that you’re scared if you don’t tell anyone that I’m scared. Do we have a deal?’
The boy nodded, then looked up and made eye contact. He smiled. ‘Thanks sir.’
The column of riders had slowed almost to a stop, so it wasn’t long before Allisad and Garvin had caught up. ‘Now about that horse,’ Allisad said quietly. ‘Would you be happier if you had one that was a bit easier to control?’
‘I can’t get rid of my grandfather’s horse, sir. I wouldn’t feel right doing it,’ he said defensively.
‘I’m not suggesting you get rid of her; just think of it as a swap. Just until we get to Halgorn and you’ve got a bit more accustomed to riding without help.’
‘I can’t ride your horse, sir. I’m not as tall as you; I wouldn’t even get up there.’
Allisad chuckled and clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder. ‘I’ve got something else in mind. Oak!’
The big man trotted out from his place among the ranks and drew up in front of them. The poor mare he was riding was sweating and to Garvin it seemed that her eyes were bulging out of their sockets under the weight of the enormous builder.
‘Yes, sir?’ he rumbled.
‘I wonder if you’d consider coming to an agreement with our comrade here?’ Allisad intoned. ‘Perhaps a temporary horse-trade for the duration of the journey?’
Oak looked at the boy’s horse. It was a brown mare that stood at sixteen or seventeen hands, and seemed reasonably young and fit. ‘If you wish to switch steeds for the journey, my friend, then it would be my pleasure to oblige.’
Garvin was taken aback at how polite the heavy-set rider was and nodded meekly. ‘I think it might be a good idea.’
They each quickly dismounted and moved their saddlebags over before climbing onto the opposite horse. Both of them looked more comfortable immediately, so Allisad ushered them back into line and then rode up to sit alongside Molokai.
‘I’m sorry for the delay sir; I should have been watching my men more carefully. We are ready to continue now.’
The Horsemaster General kicked his muscular black stallion into action, a motion quickly replicated by the men behind him. As they rode, he turned his head towards Allisad, pursing his lips thoughtfully.
‘No need to apologise, lieutenant. These are not trained soldiers; they are merely civilians on horseback. Besides,’ he added with a flicker of a smile, ‘I think you handled the situation extremely well. A novel idea, engaging in horse-trading in the middle of a march!’ he chuckled deeply.
‘Thank you sir. It just seemed like the best course, under the circumstances. Now both men will ride better.’
‘Indeed. Thank you, Brown,’ he said and then abruptly turned away, signifying that the conversation was over. The Kapp drew right and slowed down until half the column had passed and he was level with his own unit, then resumed his earlier pace. He smirked when he overheard his men gossiping about his handling of the situation. ‘At least it gives them something to talk about, eh Dave? Maybe I should trade you in!’ he joked, patting the horse’s neck.
Dave chose not to dignify the suggestion with an answer.
The physician strode down the long, cold corridor, his careful footsteps echoing loudly off the grey flagstones underfoot. Spaced evenly along the right wall were tall, narrow windows inset with dusty stained-glass designs. Between each alcove was hung a piece of historical memorabilia; here a shield, there a battle-axe and further along the hall was a faded tapestry that would have been worth a fortune had it not been left neglected in a quiet corner of Rektor Castle.
The stone floor on the right-hand side of the passageway, beneath the windows, was rough and uneven; however the slabs on the left were in the main walkway and over the years they had worn down so smoothly that the joins were almost invisible to the unfocussed eye. It was here that the black-garbed man paced slowly, the heels of his tough leather boots clicking a steady rhythm as he walked.
Hung at head height along the left wall were black wrought-iron sconces, each of which held a guttering candle made of a pale-coloured wax and as thick as a man’s arm. Every now and then he would pass one that had recently been replaced and stood tall, casting long shadows across the dim hallway where the grimy windows failed to let in enough light.
The place held a musty, damp smell and although the walls were thick, there were still a multitude of draughts that made the man curse and pull his cloak up more tightly around his neck. His knuckles were white and every outward breath became a translucent mist that whispered past his cheeks as he increased his speed.
At the end of the long corridor stood a thick wooden door, of which the oak beams were held together with strips of black iron and heavy bolts. The top of the door tapered to a point to fit within the shaped archway of heavy rock and a latch held the door in place.
The physician reached out and grasped the black ring-handle in his left hand, twisting it in order to raise the latch and swing the door inwards. He stepped through into a vast hall, nearly half an acre in size and with ceilings at least forty feet high. This floor was also set with flagstones, although these were more decorative in nature and made use of red and yellow stone as well as the grey of the corridor before.
The man stepped onto a thick red carpet that ran in a narrow strip down the centre of the hall and began to approach the raised dais at the head of the room. In a large bronze throne adorned with precious stones and upholstered with red velvet, sat King Garro.
The king was not at all how a stranger might imagine him. The thinning hair on his crown combined with the deep-set creases in his forehead and around his mouth, made him look a lot older than his thirty-five years. His eyes were sad and dipped in the outer corners, causing more wrinkles to shoot down his cheeks.
His lips were dry and as his trusted doctor approached, his expression softened and he ran a dry tongue around his mouth.
‘Grimbaul,’ he croaked. ‘I was expecting you.’
‘My liege,’ the physician replied, dropping into a deep bow. He knew the king was extremely unwell and had been working day and night trying to find something to improve the monarch’s disposition. He had a degenerative hereditary condition which had taken hold very quickly and unexpectedly over the last couple of years, before which it had barely affected the enthusiastic king in his day-to-day life.
Now, however, it seemed that it was all Grimbaul could do to keep his king awake during the day. He smiled at the man slumped in the throne in front of him.
’You’re looking well, sire. Much better than yesterday. How do you feel?
‘Tired, I’m afraid. Tired and cold. It’s an effort just to raise a glass to my mouth. How is your research going?’
‘I don’t have an antidote yet, my liege, but I feel I am getting close. Unfortunately it is a long process. In the meantime, however, I have brought you your vitality medicine to keep your body strong.’
Grimbaul reached into the folds of his heavy black cloak and withdrew a small vial containing a syrupy purple liquid. He removed the stopper and winced as the foul odour reached his nose. Placing one hand behind the king’s head, he gently supported the vial and helped the man drink his medication.
This done, he picked up a glass of water from a side-table and passed it to the king, who was still spluttering from the unpleasant taste of the potion. Once King Garro had returned to his previous slouched position in the throne, Grimbaul bowed again.
‘Will there be anything more, my liege?’ he asked softly.
The king shook his head and began to wave the physician away. As Grimbaul turned, Garro cleared his throat and spoke again. ‘General Lazarus is outside. Please send him in.’
Grimbaul nodded and quickly marched out of the sombre throne-room. He didn’t much like the arrogant general; however in a nation built upon war he was in the minority. When he left the great hall he saw Lazarus sprawled on a chaise longue barking orders at a palace servant.
When he had finished berating the boy, who could not have been any older than fourteen, he turned his attention to Grimbaul.
‘Grim! Just the man. Tell me, has the king’s health improved since I was last here?’
Grimbaul cringed at the uninvited and disliked abbreviation of his name. ‘He is no better than he was last month,’ he advised the general, then after glancing around to ensure they could not be overheard he added, ‘which I’m sure is the news you were hoping for.’
‘What a terrible thing to say, Grimmy!’ Lazarus replied in mock horror. ‘Nothing is more important to me than the wellbeing of our illustrious leader.’
‘As long as he is the one being led,’ Grimbaul said bitterly.
‘Is he still taking his medication correctly?’ the general asked.
‘He is still taking the suppressant as you instructed, general. I have just given him his afternoon dose now, as it happens. However I must entreat you to stop this course. His condition is worsening and with the mind suppressant as well, he is likely to become nothing more than a vegetable before the war is over.’
‘We’ve talked about this, Grimbo. If he has the capability to make his own decisions, they will undoubtedly be illogical rules based on elaborate fantasies. We can’t afford to put the country at risk like that. Need I remind you about the sheep?’
‘Even so,’ Grimbaul protested, ‘he is our king and should have the freedom to make his own choices, however strange they may seem to you or I.’
The general’s face contorted momentarily before returning to the usual calm façade. However, Grimbaul had known the man too long to be fooled by his outward appearance. He recognised the distant look that glazed the general’s eyes when his emotions were high.
General Lazarus pushed himself to his feet in one smooth, graceful movement and took a step towards Grimbaul, so that the physician’s nose was mere inches from the taller man’s neck. When he spoke again, the coldness of his voice struck fear in Grimbaul’s heart and caused him to shudder involuntarily.
’I know what is best for my king. I am the general of his army and you would do well to remember that. For his own safety, it is essential that no one else is told of his condition or of what medication we have prescribed.
‘If you ever doubt that and I find that you have discussed...’ he ran his tongue across his teeth as he chose his next word carefully, ’...sensitive information with anyone else, then I have some good friends in the eastern dungeon who would be glad to make your acquaintance.’
Grimbaul’s eyes widened in terror as he heard the last sentence. The eastern dungeon was where the torture chambers were. The depraved sadists who plied their trade there had been known to keep victims in agony for weeks on end, before death came as a joyful blessing.
‘N-no, no, I don’t doubt it,’ he gibbered. ‘You know the best course of action, of course, sir. I will continue with the medication that you have recommended, sir.’
General Lazarus’s face relaxed and a twisted smirk appeared in the corner of his mouth. ‘I’m glad we understand one another. Now run along, doctor; I have business to attend to.’ He turned and strode into the wide hall, leaving Grimbaul quailing in his wake.
Inside the hall, King Garro was still draped over his throne like an empty robe over a chair. At the sound of the door slamming, he slowly moved his eyes over to focus on the tall bald man who approached him. As the man drew closer he dropped to one knee and bowed his head to the king.
‘My liege, I bring good tidings from the front line. We have won valuable territory from our foes in Rejkland.’
‘General Lazarus. My friend. This is good news.’ The king spoke in short sentences, pausing between each one to draw a deep breath.
‘The cities of Delcia and Poranthia are now ours and conquest of the remaining cities is imminent.’
‘Have we suffered many losses?’
‘No, my liege. Only two thousand of our initial twelve thousand men have died. Far less than our enemies have lost.’
‘Two thousand? That seems a lot. The men must be sick of war.’
‘On the contrary, my liege. They are proud to have such a strong and powerful king and are eager to expand your territory.’ At this flattery, the general placed his hand on top of the king’s, gently shaking it in reassurance as if talking to an elderly relative.
‘Oh. Well that’s good then.’ The king shut his eyes for several seconds, as if keeping them open required too much effort.
‘However, in order to conquer Jalapa we will need a further ten thousand men, sire.’
‘Ten thousand? Must we send more men?’ The king leant forward and tried to straighten himself in the seat but finding it to be too much effort he slouched back into his original position.
‘It is essential, my lord.’
The king shook his head slowly, struggling to comprehend the request. ‘You already have all our armed forces under your command. Where will you find the additional ten thousand that you require?’
‘We currently have only the volunteers, my liege. There are easily a further twenty thousand men in the country and I only require half of them. All I need is your permission to recruit them.’
The two guards standing silently behind the throne shared a glance and one of them shifted his footing uncomfortably. What the general was asking for was a licence to press-gang any civilian he encountered into joining the army against their will.
The King Garro of old would have dismissed any such suggestion out of hand but his personal guards knew that over the last couple of years he had become much more easily led, almost blasé, about decisions of state. They held their breath as they waited for the king’s response.
‘That will impact on industry, not to mention the bad feeling that will be created. You still have ten thousand men... that should be enough.’ The king spoke carefully but was far from convincing.
‘Please think carefully about your decision, lord. I’m sure your wisdom will lead you to the right choice. We are close to victory but we cannot afford to stop until we have conquered Jalapa. Otherwise, General Paglaia will regroup the Rejk forces and could mount a counter-attack that will cripple us. We must have those extra men if we are to succeed.’
‘I cannot think straight today, general. However, I suppose you know what is best. Take the ten thousand men you require.’ With that, the king hung his head forward so that his chin rested on his chest.
‘Thank you, my liege,’ Lazarus replied. He waited for a response but the king had drifted off to sleep. Instead he stood and smiled to himself, then marched from the draughty old hall and out of the castle into the afternoon sunlight.