As the sun rolled its way across the clear blue sky, King Rogar and eight of his most trusted knights rode across the dusty plain, leading the five cavalry regiments on their journey to Halgorn. The units remained a few hundred yards apart so that each contingent could only just see the next one in the distance. Even when they stopped briefly at around three o’clock the units remained separated.
Melca was surprised at this, so seeing Allisad alone at the edge of their group he walked over to question him about it. Allisad explained to him that the general and his sergeants were trying to bond each group together by ensuring that they stayed with their own unit at all times.
‘The better we get to know one another,’ he said, ’the better we will work together when the time comes. You need to understand everyone who you are fighting alongside. You need to think of them all as close friends so that you fight selflessly and protect each other as well as yourselves. If it becomes ‘every man for himself,’ the regiment as a whole is weaker and therefore more likely to crack under pressure.’
Melca had not realised how complicated warfare could be. He thought it was all about having more men and having the best fighters. Instead, there were strategies and tactics that went far beyond the individual warriors. Things like the terrain of the battlefield, the provisions of the army, the morale of the men... all aspects needed to be considered and now he understood why the generals had such a difficult task in coordinating the army.
He had sat in the shade of a yerti tree next to the older man and could now see Ryden close by, talking to Derry who was munching on an apple and laughing loudly. After a short while the smith left his companion, walked over to where Allisad and Melca were resting and sat down near a fallen branch. Melca thought that he was looking a lot healthier than he had done on the journey to Jalapa, probably due to the fact that he’d had a good meal and a full night’s sleep for the first time since leaving Sharbury.
He seemed to be happier too, an emotion that Melca found it difficult to share given their circumstances. Then again, Ryden always saw the best of any situation he found himself in. It was an enviable trait and one that Melca was never able to replicate in his own life. He took a swig from his canteen, withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his lips dry. Allisad smirked and looked away.
Hearing a horse approach, Melca put a hand over his eyes to shield them from the sun’s glare and watched as a stocky man in light armour approached, riding a black stallion. ‘Who’s that?’ he asked.
Allisad followed his gaze. ‘That’s Salem, one of the Horsemaster’s sergeants. He’s trying to form an elite unit of horsemen. Perhaps he’ll pick you two out, eh?’
‘He might choose Ryden,’ Melca suggested, ‘but he wouldn’t pick me unless I was the only rider left in the squad. I only learnt to ride a week ago and it shows.’
‘You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, Mel,’ Allisad reassured him, ‘I’ve met a lot of riders worse than you in my time, some of whom claim to have had years of experience. It just takes a bit of getting used to, that’s all. Mind you,’ he added, ‘there’s no point either of you signing up for the King’s Guard, is there?’
‘Why not?’ Ryden asked, confused.
‘Well, you’re leaving when we get to Halgorn, aren’t you? You’re not going to be there when the fighting happens.’ The newly-appointed lieutenant glanced around carefully as he spoke, keen to make sure he couldn’t be overheard. Ryden quickly glared at Melca, knowing that no one else could have given away their mission.
Melca blushed as he recalled their drunken conversation the night before. ‘Course we’re staying,’ he said quickly. ‘I was only winding you up last night; I didn’t think you’d fall for it!’
‘Come on,’ Allisad replied, ‘I’m not stupid. You told me you had a secret mission. Look, I’m not going to tell anyone, I’m just curious. I’m going to miss your company, that’s all. You’re the only friends I have here.’
‘It’s nothing,’ Ryden responded. ‘There’s just something we need to do and then we’ll be coming back. That’s all there is to it.’
‘What kind of something?’
‘We’re going to see an old friend. A friend of my father, if you must know.’ Ryden tried to be as vague as possible but Allisad persisted.
‘A friend of your father, eh? So I guess Carrick put you up to this? You need to be careful of him, you know. You only met him a few days ago; how do you know you can trust him?’
Melca interrupted. ‘We only met you a few days ago too! And you’ve been just as cagey with us. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!’
Allisad held his hands up. ‘Look, you’re right. I didn’t mean to interfere but I’m concerned for your well-being. Where does this friend live?’
‘I’d rather not say.’
‘Perhaps I haven’t made the situation clear. I’m your superior officer here so if I ask you a question then it is your duty to answer it honestly. Otherwise I have to report you for insubordination.’
Ryden was taken aback. He had not expected Allisad to pull rank and he now faced a difficult decision.
‘Fine, I’ll tell you. But you can’t tell anyone because this has also come from a senior officer and we’ve been sworn to secrecy. No one knows but the two of us.’
‘Of course, you have my word.’ As quickly as he had become demanding, Allisad had returned to the concerned friend persona and was leaning forward conspiratorially. ‘My lips are sealed.’
‘We’re going to Rektor. My father’s friend is there and if we can reach him then he may be able to put an end to the war. It will save a lot of people from being killed.’
‘So this is the mission that Carrick has sent you on? To go into enemy territory to find someone who he thinks can click his fingers and make all this go away? It’s a fool’s mission.’
‘Foolish it may be,’ Ryden snapped, ‘but we’re going anyway and that’s the end of it! I didn’t want to tell you but you forced me. Well now you know.’
‘Forgive me, Ryden, I was not criticising you. I’m sure you recognise how incredibly dangerous it is to venture into the heart of a country that you are at war with. I just hate to see you both throwing your lives away.’
‘I am under no illusions. I know it’s risky but what if we are successful? Thousands of lives will be saved. That’s a worthy sacrifice, is it not?’
‘I have to hand it to you; you’re not short of courage. But I think you will need more than that to succeed. Do you know where in Rektor this man is? How to find him? What to do if you are captured?’
Melca shook his head and Ryden murmured a negative response. Allisad continued, this time in a questioning manner rather than the accusative barrage he had just launched.
‘How confident are you in this man’s ability to end the war?’
‘He’s a politician, Allisad. Very close to King Garro, who is the one man that can stop General Lazarus. If we find him, he will help us.’
Allisad nodded thoughtfully. After a moment’s pause, he spoke again. ‘Very well. I will accompany you.’
Ryden was surprised, but not nearly as surprised as Melca, who choked on the piece of cheese he had been eating.
‘Accompany us?’ Ryden repeated. ‘I appreciate the thought but we haven’t asked for your help.’
‘You don’t need to ask,’ Allisad said gently. ‘That’s what friends are for.’
‘Look, thanks all the same, Alli, but we don’t want you to come with us. Besides, you’re outlawed; your presence will make the mission all the more perilous. At least no one there will recognise Melca or me. You’ll draw unnecessary attention to us and there will be people there who want you dead.’
‘It’s kind of you to think of me, Ry, but I am decided. You won’t last five minutes without me and don’t try to say I’m wrong because I can assure you that I’m not. You helped me to enter Jalapa without asking anything in return and now it’s my turn to repay the favour.’
Before Ryden could say anything else, a whistle sounded and Allisad jumped to his feet. ‘Time to move on,’ he announced to everyone within earshot, then bounded away to where the horses were tethered, leaving Ryden and Melca reeling from the conversation.
The rest of the day’s riding was hot and uncomfortable for Ryden, who liked to be able to travel at his own pace, going faster or slower as the mood took him. Here, surrounded by sweaty men and smelly horses and restricted to marching speed for the entire journey, he was bored and agitated. Melca looked equally disenfranchised.
Allisad rode outside the ranks so he could move up and down the unit as he pleased; however he spent most of the time hovering next to Melca and casting sly grins to them both. He reminded Ryden of a mischievous little boy, waiting for a trick to be discovered.
At one point a sparsely wooded area came into sight up ahead and Allisad rode to the front of the regiment to speak with Molokai about stopping for water. As he did so, Melca turned to Ryden and whispered; ‘I thought he’d never leave! He’s acting like a kid on Christmas Eve! How do we tell him he’s not coming?’
‘Maybe he should come with us,’ Ryden replied, keeping his voice low so the men around him couldn’t hear his words. ‘After all, he knows the city much better than we do. And as he pointed out, if we have to find Aranin on our own then we won’t know where to start.’
‘Are you serious?’ hissed Melca. ‘I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him! What if we get there and he turns on us?’
‘I don’t understand why you’re so suspicious of him, Mel. Yes, perhaps he’s a bit weird but I’m sure he means well. Anyway, what possible reason would he have to turn on us? We’ve never done him any harm.’
‘I don’t know, Ry, but something doesn’t feel right.’ He paused and took a sip from his canteen before speaking again. ‘He got pretty fierce when you wouldn’t say where we’re going. He was going to report us to the Horsemaster General! That’s not what friends do. Besides, it’s not just me; Carrick doesn’t trust him either.’
‘Well I think you’re both being silly; there’s no ulterior motive in all this. We helped him and now he wants to help us; that’s all there is to it.’
‘All there is to what?’ Allisad asked as he rode back to join them.
Ryden thought quickly before replying. ‘I said if we run out of water before we get to Halgorn then we’ll go thirsty and that’s all there is to it.’
‘Actually I was just discussing this with our man at the front there. We’re going to stop when we reach the trees and see if we can find a spring or something. There must be some water there somewhere; just look at how green those leaves are.’
Sure enough, the trees up ahead were crowned in a splendorous green, which made a pleasant change to the horizon they had been staring at for most of the morning; nothing but sandy brown earth and blue sky. At least this patch of woodland, small though it was, broke up the monotony.
As they drew closer, Allisad and Lieutenant Shepherd led their respective troops away from the leading unit and into other areas of the wood, so that when Ryden and Melca dismounted and settled down with their companions they could only just make out the next group through the trees, about a hundred yards away.
Ryden sat himself down with his back to a large tree, the bole of which was wider than his shoulders. He guessed that it must be several decades old at the very least and the thick bark was gnarled and deeply furrowed, like the wrinkles in an old man’s face.
Around the base, some of the roots ran for several feet above the ground before burrowing deep into the earth. One such root was the perfect height for Ryden to rest his elbow on, so he leant his head on the heel of his palm and shut his eyes.
Melca spread a blanket on the ground to sit opposite him and Derry and Oak came to join them. Derry leaned against the trunk of another tree, whilst Oak sat on the ground with his legs crossed in front of him. Derry was the first to speak, which Ryden had come to realise was not unusual.
‘Hey fellas! Enjoying the journey? Are you sick of looking at horses’ backsides yet? I know I am. Wouldn’t it be great if we’d just come in wagons? That’s how I’d normally do a journey like this. That way you can move around a bit, stretch your legs and so on.’
‘You said earlier that this was your first time out of Jalapa,’ Melca observed.
‘Well, yeah, but I mean I would use a wagon if I had the choice,’ Derry replied quickly.
‘I think the idea is that we improve our horsemanship before being thrown into battle,’ Ryden suggested. ‘You can’t do that very well if you’re sat on a bench-seat with your feet up!’
Oak chuckled, his broad shoulders bouncing up and down as he did so. Allisad strolled through the trees and into their clearing, clapping a hand on Oak’s shoulder as he passed. ‘How are you holding up, big man? Are you finding the new steed a bit better for you?’
Oak rolled his eyes up to look at the lieutenant. Ryden wondered how he would react to Allisad, remembering the man’s encounter with authority earlier that morning. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to be concerned with rank and he grinned widely at the newcomer. ‘Much better, thanks sir. I don’t feel like I’m torturing the poor beast any more.’
‘Well that’s good to hear. I think the boy seems to be finding things a lot easier now as well.’ Allisad yawned and stretched his arms up over his head, then sighed. ‘I tell you what, lads; I hope you don’t have trouble sleeping because otherwise the next few nights are going to be hell.’
Ryden smirked. He knew he wouldn’t have any trouble getting to sleep. He already felt as though he was drifting off and this was the middle of the day with people talking loudly around him. Instead he just let the voices wash over him and imagined that he was lying in the fresh grass on Cadmir village green.
He was roused back to full consciousness when a new voice joined the conversation. He looked up and saw Salem; the sergeant charged with forming an elite horse unit. He was asking the group which of them felt they were skilled riders. Derry volunteered himself immediately, of course, and began to explain that he’d been riding since he was old enough to walk.
Oak and Melca stayed silent, both quite content to let Derry have the limelight. Ryden considered saying that he too was a confident rider, then decided against it. Instead he just shrugged and told Salem he was an able rider but nothing more. Allisad recognised his casual response and nodded.
Salem asked Allisad to take a walk with him to discuss individual members of the squad, which he did, leaving the four men to talk amongst themselves.
‘Why didn’t you volunteer, Ryden?’ Derry asked, surprised. ‘You’re a good rider and it’s a real honour to be selected for the King’s Guard.’
Ryden shrugged again. I just don’t think it’s for me, that’s all. I’d much rather keep a low profile and leave the glory for someone else.’
Derry shook his head despairingly. ‘You’re missing a great opportunity, you know,’ he began, before getting distracted with thoughts of his own destiny. ‘Then again, that’s one less person for me to compete with!’ he beamed. ‘I really hope I get chosen. In your opinion, would you say I’m one of the best riders in the regiment?’ he asked the group expectantly.
‘Well it’s quite hard to judge, given that we’re riding in file and travelling no faster than walking pace,’ Melca began, then catching Ryden’s eye he stopped himself, instead echoing the responses that the other two men had given. ‘But of course you’re the best. Without question. They’d be foolish not to pick you.’
The young man grinned again and strolled off to another group that was sitting nearby, no doubt to boast to them about how he may be selected for the king’s fifty. Oak followed shortly after, and Ryden laughed to himself.
‘I think Oak feels responsible for him, you know,’ he said to Melca when the builder was out of earshot. ‘He won’t let him wander off on his own, he needs to go and keep an eye on him.’
Just then, Allisad strolled back into the clearing and sat himself down between the two boys.
‘Right,’ he said, rubbing his hands together. ‘What’s the plan when we get to Rektor?’
Melca groaned and put his head in his hands.
The sun was still high in the afternoon sky and many of the men in Molokai’s regiment were sat around with their shirts off to cool down, or else making the most of the small areas of shade beneath some of the denser trees. Ryden leaned his head back against his own tree and took in a deep breath, enjoying the taste of the cool air on his tongue.
He considered the Kapp’s question. If truth be told, he hadn’t the faintest idea what he would do upon arriving in Kappland; but not wanting to seem ignorant he chose to divert the query instead.
‘First we have to think about getting out of Halgorn and the journey north. I don’t know how easy it will be to slip away from the regiment, especially if they’re on watch for deserters.’
‘I don’t think you need to concern yourself with our exit,’ Allisad reassured him, ‘as your lieutenant I can just explain that the three of us have a scouting mission and that should be enough.’
‘What about getting to Kappland?’ Melca asked. ‘How long is it likely to take? And what happens if we meet the Kappish army coming the other way?’
‘Rektor is probably four full days’ ride from Halgorn,’ Allisad advised, ‘but if we want to avoid the army then we’ll probably need to follow the coast, which could add a further day to the journey. I don’t foresee any problems with that but getting into the city could be a different matter because they will be on the lookout for scouts.’
‘Even when we get into Rektor, we need to track down where this man is being held or at least who has him,’ Melca said, his forehead furrowing into a frown. ‘How will we find that out?’
‘I have an idea about that,’ Allisad said. ‘Have either of you heard of the R.L.?’ Ryden and Melca both shook their heads. ‘The R.L. is an underground movement that challenges the present ideology of the Kappish government, opposing what is fast becoming a fascist regime and instead promoting utilitarianism through peaceful protest.’
‘...’ Melca said pointedly.
‘And what does that mean in layman’s terms?’ Ryden asked, a little more articulately.
‘They basically don’t agree with how the country is run,’ Allisad replied. ‘But I gather that they have a fairly broad reach and are pretty well-informed on most secrets of state. Presumably they have some connection within parliament or the royal house which as yet hasn’t been discovered.’
‘Go on?’ Ryden prompted him, still not at all sure where the conversation was leading.
‘Well if we can find them then I’m certain they will want to help. Let’s just hope they know something.’
Melca was still sceptical but as he had no better ideas he kept quiet and instead took a quick swig from his waterskin. Ryden let out a deep sigh but Allisad merely smiled to himself, pleased with the idea.
A shout from a nearby group drew Ryden’s attention. Two of the men from the regiment had begun to circle each other and a crowd was forming around them. Ryden didn’t know whether it was a serious quarrel or a bit of fun but deciding he didn’t really care either way, he turned his attention back to the matter in hand.
Melca adjusted his position, careful not to get his clothes dirty as he did so. ‘What does R.L. stand for?’ he asked, absent-mindedly brushing at his trouser-legs in an attempt to oust the dust that had accumulated during the ride.
‘I couldn’t say for sure. It’s something to do with Rektor and Liberty but very little is known about them so they’re just referred to as the R.L.’
‘I think perhaps what is more important is whether they will want to help us,’ Ryden observed. ‘What can we offer them to make it worth their while?’
‘From my knowledge of this type of group,’ Allisad explained, ‘they usually relish any opportunity to oppose whoever holds the power, regardless of who that may be or what their policies are! But that aside, I’m confident that the R.L. will want to put an end to the war as much as you do.’ He paused and then corrected himself, ‘as much as we all do.’
Melca observed the slip but said nothing. Another shout came from the group of men clamouring behind him, inciting the two men inside the circle to fight. Ryden suddenly jumped to his feet and ran over. As he did so, Melca saw that one of the men standing in the ring was Derry.
He and Allisad stood and followed Ryden over to the clearing. The cause of the disagreement wasn’t immediately apparent however the stranger was shouting abuse at Derry, who stood a few feet away from him, looking bemused.
Ryden asked one of the spectators what was going on and discovered that Derry had been boasting, claiming to be the best rider in the unit. The other man, who was currently running through his entire vocabulary of four letter words, had obviously disagreed with the boast and was now threatening to settle matters by combat.
‘Looks like we’re going to have a fight on our hands!’ Allisad whispered to Ryden.
‘Don’t count on it,’ Ryden replied. ‘You’re forgetting about Derry’s bodyguard.’
As if on cue, Oak stepped into the ring and advanced upon the unsuspecting stranger. ‘You’ve got a big mouth,’ he said, in an undertone that at high altitude could have caused an avalanche. The man fell silent immediately.
‘If you wanted to prove yourself as a rider, I expect you’d have challenged him to a race,’ Oak boomed as his shadow fell across the man. ’Given that you seem more interested in fighting, I assume you want to make a name for yourself as the strongest warrior of the squad instead. If that is the case, perhaps you should try to earn your spurs against me.’
‘N-n-n-no need for that,’ the man gibbered, backing up until he stumbled into the cluster of riders who had gathered behind him, ‘we was just having words, that’s all. A b-bit of banter, eh mate?’ he called across unconvincingly to Derry, who merely shrugged.
Oak turned away scornfully, and as he did so Ryden noticed Molokai riding towards the group of men.
‘Do we have a problem here?’ The Horsemaster General called, causing a hush to fall amongst the crowd.
‘No problem sir,’ Oak responded, whilst the other man just shook his head.
’Good, because I thought I’d made my policy on squabbling very clear. If there is a dispute then I want to hear about it. I will then make sure it is settled immediately and with the minimum of fuss.
‘You are not women and I don’t expect you to whisper and gossip behind the backs of your comrades. Nor do I expect you to hold a grudge over trivial matters. There will be plenty of opportunities to fight when we get to Halgorn and no need to do so before.’
He cast his eyes over the men. All eyes were on him and he could see several nods of agreement. Satisfied that his words had been taken in, he waited a moment longer and then spoke again.
‘Fall in!’ he commanded, then watched as the men rushed to stand in their ranks. He shook his head, less than happy about their haphazard attempt at order. ‘We will move off in five minutes,’ he called, then as an afterthought yelled, ‘squad dismissed,’ before turning and riding away.