The morning had been long and arduous for John. He and his grandfather had been walking or running almost constantly for several hours and his feet ached terribly. It didn’t help that his shoes were not designed for such rigorous use and he had already worn a hole in one of the soles. Small pebbles kept getting lodged inside, which caused him so much discomfort that he had to keep stopping to shake them out.
They had now left the town of Khaviz and were on the long road to Rektor. The journey would have taken no longer than a few hours if they had been travelling by cart, however Balenor had estimated that by foot they would only just reach the city by nightfall.
To make matters worse, every time they heard a wagon clattering down the road towards them they had to run from the side of the road into the undergrowth and hide, for fear that someone may recognise them from the poster that had been put up in the village square back in Khaviz.
The day had dawned brightly but it was still cold and John was uncomfortable. His face and hands were icy but the core of his body was hot and sweating from the constant exercise. The muscles in his legs ached and burned and he wanted nothing more than to just lie down and go to sleep.
He was also concerned for Balenor. Although his grandfather was still reasonably fit, he wasn’t getting any younger and John was surprised he’d even made it this far. Balenor was panting and wheezing and he spoke little, preferring to conserve his energy for pushing onward.
John knew he was feeling guilty for causing their current plight and yet despite Balenor’s worries, the boy was secretly quite excited. This was an adventure; come tomorrow they would be in the bustling capital city and could build a new life, away from the mean kids that had tormented him.
He began to fantasise about what their new life might hold. Perhaps they would have a two-storey house, so he could look out from his bedroom window and see the roofs of all the other houses far below. Then he’d make lots of friends, and they could all sit and look out of the window together, on top of the world.
With his new friends, he could go apple-scrumping and play ball games out in the fields. He could go to the Mercury Arena with them and watch the gladiators fighting. Maybe one day he’d be strong enough to become a gladiator himself and then everyone would respect him and he would be rich. He could buy Gramps a workshop where he could tinker to his heart’s content, without fear of catching the sofa on fire or making the entire house smell of rotten eggs.
He was roused from his daydreams when his grandfather grabbed his wrist and pulled him off the road. Blinking twice, he spotted two horse-drawn carts trundling towards them.
The carts were still a few hundred yards away and John felt fairly sure they wouldn’t have spotted two pedestrians strolling along the roadside, but nevertheless he followed the old man’s lead and dived under a bush, pulling the branches down in front of his face.
He could just see the road through the leaves and as his grandpa hunkered down beside him he whispered, ‘Why are we hiding? They won’t know us, Gramps.’
Balenor replied. ‘Yes, I’m sure you’re right. But caution saves calamity, as they say.’
John stayed motionless but his breathing was ragged and his heart was pounding. It sounded deafening to him, although he tried to reassure himself that it would never be heard over the clattering of the approaching vehicles.
The first cart flew by them and carried on down the road towards Rektor, however the second cart seemed to be slowing. The driver was looking in their direction as he passed and his intense black eyes seemed to be locked on John’s face, leaving him quailing in fear. Then, just as John was convinced he had been spotted, the driver returned his gaze to the road ahead.
John breathed a sigh of relief and carefully shifted his position, easing the numbness that had developed in his arms. As he did so, he heard an almighty crack and watched in terror as the corner of the wagon nearest to them suddenly lunged downward, catapulting splinters of wood into the road in front of them. He felt Balenor tense up beside him and heard him hiss, ‘The wheel’s gone!’
And it had. The enormous cartwheel, over four feet in diameter, had buckled and two of the wooden spokes connecting the hub to the rim had snapped.
The fierce-looking driver swore loudly and hauled the horses to a halt. Springing down from the bench-seat, he walked around the side of the wagon to investigate. The man that had been sitting alongside him also dismounted, strolled to the back of the wagon and climbed up into the cargo hold. As he did so, the wheel bowed even further.
‘It’s no good,’ the driver shouted gruffly. ‘It’s completely gone; ve are going to have to replace it.’ He kicked the rim of the wheel as he said this, causing the wood to creak ominously. When he spoke, Balenor recognised the voice of the man who had been in the square earlier that morning and slowly shimmied further back into the undergrowth, gesturing to John to do the same.
The driver’s companion, a stocky, ginger-haired man with a ruddy complexion and thick orange eyebrows that met in the middle, leapt out of the wagon holding the spare wheel in both hands. ‘That’s what you get for buying cheap crap from the market,’ he called back. ‘I told you this would happen.’
The driver swore again then looked around, trying to find something he could use to prop up the corner of the cart. He swung round to face the bush where Balenor and John were hiding, and they both immediately froze, praying that they wouldn’t be spotted.
He looked from side to side, then noticed a thick branch that had fallen a few yards away and went over to retrieve it. He weighed it momentarily in his hand, pressing it with his thumbs to make sure it wasn’t rotten. Satisfied that it would be strong enough, he walked back towards the cart, stripping the log of smaller twigs as he did so.
John held his breath, terrified of being seen, and gradually eased himself backwards away from the road. The ginger-haired man was testing the spokes of the new wheel, whistling as he did so. As the driver drew closer, John inadvertently put his knee down on a rotten branch, which gave a loud crack.
Suddenly, both men stood stock-still. The whistling ceased. John’s heart leapt into his throat and he squeezed his eyes tightly shut, mouthing a silent prayer. Then, petrified of what might happen, he flung his eyes open again to see what the men would do.
The shorter man spoke first, saying ‘It’s probably just a badger,’ before returning his attention to the wheel. The driver was not convinced, however, and gestured for his companion to stay silent. He walked slowly towards the bush that hid John and Balenor, his dark eyes scanning the undergrowth thoroughly.
He put one knee on the ground and leant down to place his hands on the stony road. Any minute he would look beneath the bush and see two pairs of eyes looking back at him. John bit his lip and clenched his fists, ready to scramble out of the bush and run away as soon as he was spotted.
CRACK! Suddenly another spoke of the already buckled wheel gave way and the corner of the wagon sagged a foot closer to the ground.
The mean-looking driver jumped to his feet and spun around as the other man dropped the spare wheel and rushed to support the underside of the cart. ’Let’s just get this done, shall we? I want to be in the city before it gets dark. Grumbling, the driver nodded an acknowledgment.
The wheel-change didn’t take long to do. Once they had propped the branch under the axle for support, the driver removed the wooden wedge that pinned the wheel in place, and they quickly removed the damaged wheel, throwing it to the side of the road a few feet from where Balenor lay.
Slipping the new wheel in its place, they slid the pin back into the axle hub and spun the wheel, making sure it would turn freely. Then they heaved at the corner of the cart so the support bar fell to the ground.
Dusting his hands off, the driver walked back to the cab and hauled himself into position. Turning in his seat, he called to his companion.
‘Just a minute,’ the other man replied and then to John’s horror he turned to face the bush and reached his hand into his trousers.
John covered his face with his hands and gagged as the yellow rain began to fall, splashing off the leaves in front of where he lay and missing him by mere inches. Even when the man had finished and walked back to the wagon, John lay motionless until the horses began to move off again and he saw the wheels of the cart start to turn. Then he pushed himself backwards through the bush until he was able to stand up between the trees, five yards from the roadside. Balenor did the same and drew himself to his feet next to his grandson.
‘That was close!’ he sighed as they watched the wagon disappear down the road. ‘We’ll have to be more careful from now on.’ John just stood in shocked silence, leaning against a tree whilst he waited for the trembling of his legs to subside.
The Lawrum Inn was one of the oldest buildings in Rektor and had originally been built as a sturdy wooden structure using enormous oak pillars, joists and beams. This was fortified with rocks and as new building methods were conceived over the decades it had been reinforced several times.
The walls had since been packed with mud and clay and coated in a paste made from sand, water and crushed limestone, so they were now a yard thick in places and as solid as a mountain.
The stout building was situated on the low bank of the river Rek, which coursed through the centre of the capital, giving the city its name. The river had eaten away at the bank over time and there were places where the soil had been washed away entirely, leaving the water to surge past the stone foundations of the old alehouse.
Inside, the ceiling beams were as smooth as the stones on the riverbed outside and varnished to the colour of treacle. Even the roughly-hewn boulders that made up the walls had long since lost their keenness and the whole place had a feeling of permanence.
A fireplace, more than eight feet wide, was set into the centre of the longest wall. Dancing orange flames crackled in the grate, sending thick black smoke up the winding chimney and out into the city air. Although the fire always took an age to warm up the ancient bones of the building, once it had done so the walls provided very efficient insulation.
It was for that reason that the fire, which had been burning since the early morning, had now made the large room extremely warm and caused misty condensation to form on the small windows set around the large hall.
There were several basic wooden tables set around the room, each surrounded by equally plain-looking chairs, and the floorboards were bare save for a large burgundy rug spread out in front of the hearth. The ceiling was low, especially towards the rear of the room, meaning that the overweight landlord had developed a distinctive curve in his spine from constant slouching behind the small bar that ran along the back wall.
The alehouse had not yet opened for the day though; so instead of standing behind the bar, Gurta was sitting at one of the tables digging at a steak pie with a large tarnished fork. Opposite him was his brother, Tanka, who had already cleared his plate and was now tapping a discordant tune on an empty tankard using a spoon.
The two men were both in their thirties, with round shoulders and even rounder stomachs. Both had short dark hair that was receding at the temples, as well as round cheeks and double chins. The similarities were easily apparent but Tanka, the younger of the two, was slightly cross-eyed and missing a couple of teeth. He also had deep furrows coursing through his forehead and a simple smile spread across his face.
‘Come on, T, stop messin’ abou’, eh?’ The landlord scolded his brother, who had now picked up a knife to join the ensemble.
‘I’m making music, Gurt! Pretty music!’ His smile got even wider and he began to play louder.
Gurta sighed and turned his attention back to his dinner. Tanka was only three years younger than him, however he had been extremely ill when he was a baby and the sickness had affected his mind. Now he was a grown man however his brain had remained at the maturity level of a young boy.
Gurta had always looked out for his brother and been very protective over him, so when their mother died twelve years ago he had taken over the responsibility permanently. That meant making sure Tanka had regular meals and somewhere to live, as well as keeping him out of mischief.
He had given his brother the ‘job’ of cleaner at the pub, meaning he had to wipe down all the tables and chairs with warm soapy water before anyone arrived. He also had to sweep the floorboards and make sure the ground was covered with a thin layer of sawdust; Kappish men were naturally aggressive and blood was spilt in the tavern every night due to the regular fights and frequent fatalities.
In addition to those duties, Tanka was often able to break up fights before they started, because although he was a little slow he was physically strong and very intimidating. He also thought the world of his brother and would usually do anything Gurta asked him to do without a second thought.
Gurta finished his pie and wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve before picking up the plates and carrying them through to the kitchen. He quickly rinsed them off in a bowl of water that he had brought in from the pump earlier, then stood them on a wooden rack to drain and returned to the main lounge.
Even though it was only a few hours after noon, Tanka had already completed his chores for the day because today was special. Once a week, some important people came to the pub before it opened and they would all sit round and have a secret meeting. Tanka was allowed to sit with them as long as he kept everything he heard a close secret.
And he always did. He had promised Gurta he would and he knew he must never ever break a promise.
As Gurta began to pour some drinks he heard the click of the metal latch at the back of the pub and his eyes darted to the doorway leading to the back room. A few seconds later, a petite young woman with long, curly auburn hair emerged into the room. She wore a black skirt and a tight, low-cut black woollen top that revealed a little too much cleavage.
She strolled across the room to the bar, her heels knocking loudly on the floorboards as she did so. She smiled and Gurta felt a lump form in his throat.
’Oh, ‘ello Senti,’ he managed, then turned away to open a bottle of sweet rosé, which he knew to be her favourite wine.
‘Hi Gurta,’ she replied, her accent warm and lilting. ‘How’re you keeping?’
The landlord grinned, enjoying the way that she said his name so elegantly, making it sound almost exotic. ‘Can’t complain, love,’ he replied, pouring a tall glass of wine and handed it to her.
Accepting it, she turned and walked gracefully over to where Tanka sat. ‘And how’s me favourite man today?’ she asked playfully.
Tanka dropped his cutlery instantly and beamed at her. ‘Hiya!’ he declared, before jabbing a finger on the table. ‘Look Senti! I cleaned it good! Look how clean it is!’
Senti ran her fingers over the table and pretended to examine it. ‘Goodness, Tanka! You must’ve spent hours polishing it. I can see me face in it, it’s so clean!’
Tanka nodded proudly. ‘I’s cleaned all the tables. All of them!’
‘And a sterling job you’ve done. This place would fall apart without you, boy.’
Gurta smiled to himself as he watched from across the room. Senti was a seamstress working for the local tailor and although she didn’t have any siblings or children of her own, she was so good with Tanka that it was a joy to watch. She didn’t judge him or mock him like so many others did and she had a way of being patient without treating him like a baby.
Perhaps this was why Gurta had always carried a flame for her. Not only was she beautiful and intelligent but she was also the only woman who understood and respected his responsibility to his brother.
Unfortunately, he knew they would never be more than friends. Senti had been married once, to a soldier whom she had adored. They had only been married for a year when he went away to war and she had written to him every day for eighteen months. Then about a year ago, in Delcia, he had tragically died.
Although it was not apparent from her everyday manner, she had become extremely bitter and wanted nothing more than to exact revenge upon anyone whom she felt had a part in her husband’s death. And that was why she was here.
A few hundred yards away, a tall man shrouded in a black cloak hurried down a narrow alley, constantly glancing over his shoulder as he did so. His face was etched with the worries of his fifty-two years and as he scuttled through the streets of Rektor his knees ached, reminding him of his age.
Paranoid of pursuit he kept moving, stopping only briefly to peer round corners or duck into shaded doorways. His right hand was clenched around the handle of a battered leather bag which swung backwards and forwards as he walked.
He was a tall man and so thin that he looked unwell; his cheeks and eyes were sunken and his clothes hung off him as though they were made for someone twice his size. His arms and hands were bony and blue veins bulged from his translucent skin, giving the impression that he was withering like a flower out of water.
Yet he moved speedily. His skinny legs paced quickly through the cobbled streets and carried him to an old church. He cut through the deserted graveyard, still stopping every so often to make sure no one was following him.
When he emerged from the other side of the church grounds, he hurriedly descended a narrow stone staircase set into the hillside, which opened out into a tiny courtyard. Scooting across the cracked flagstones, he gave one last glance over his shoulder before disappearing into the back door of the Lawrum Inn.
‘Good day, Raglyn,’ Gurta announced as the door swung shut behind the old man. You’re late!’
‘Unfortunately I had some pressing matters of state to attend to. I doubt you would appreciate their importance, of course.’ The newcomer’s brow was furrowed and the deep black bags under his eyes suggested that he hadn’t been sleeping well for the last few nights.
’No need to get all hoity-toity with me, I was just ‘aving a laugh,’ the landlord mocked.
‘Hmmm.’ Raglyn muttered, securing the internal latch before making his way through to the main tavern to greet Senti and Tanka. Gurta just chuckled and shook his head.
Raglyn was a senior politician in Kappland and had only made Gurta’s acquaintance a year or two ago, having introduced himself after overhearing a conversation that had sparked his interest.
Born into money, he had been given the upbringing of a lord, which meant that Gurta’s lack of manners and etiquette constantly grated on him. However, they had a common goal and that was enough to make him tolerate the fat publican.
It was that very goal, the desire for a free Kappland that had led to them forming the R.L. Both had their reasons for wanting to end the dictatorship that presently governed the country and so once a week they would meet and discuss strategies.
For Raglyn, of course, debating politics was his day-job; however the extent to which he could air his true thoughts was very limited in the parliamentary house in Rektor so the R.L. offered an opportunity to make more of an impact than a ballot ever would.
Gurta began to pour two pints of ale, one for him and one for the newcomer. As he did so, Raglyn settled himself down next to Senti (a little too close for Gurta’s liking) and began to rifle through his bag, pulling out sheaves of paper and an old quill pen.
Tanka sat opposite him, a puzzled expression on his face. When Raglyn finished rummaging in the bag, Tanka pointed to the pile of pages. ‘Why’ve you got so much paper, Aggin?’
The politician winced at the mispronunciation of his name. ’To take notes,’ he replied slowly. ‘We need to take minutes from the meeting. Just like we did last week and the week before.’ He didn’t intend to be patronising however he hadn’t come across anyone quite like Tanka before and still didn’t really know how to deal with him.
‘Why?’ Tanka asked innocently.
‘So that we don’t forget what we’ve talked about. Otherwise there would be no point in meeting every week.’
‘Because we’d just talk about the same thing every time and not get anywhere.’
‘Oh.’ Tanka paused to think about this for a moment. ‘Why?’
Sensing that the old man was getting wound up, Senti stepped in before he lost it completely. ‘Come on now, Tanka, don’t ask so many questions. Sure, he didn’t come here to be interrogated by you now.’
Gurta walked back from the bar carrying the two drinks and settled himself down with the others. ‘All right then, where did we get to last week?’
Raglyn cleared his throat and began to read.
Meanwhile, outside in the courtyard, a young man stood motionless at the foot of the steps. He had been tracking the politician secretly for over twenty minutes; it hadn’t been easy because the old man was wary but the boy had always been good at being invisible.
His name was Branga and he had grown up on the streets of Rektor with no family to speak of. He had battled all his life for survival, which generally meant stealing food and other items, so being inconspicuous was an essential part of his livelihood.
He now stood on the overgrown terrace cursing at the bitter wind blowing through his threadbare trousers. He stared at the small wooden door in front of him. The latch on the inside was down, but this was no barrier to him.
With the practised ease of someone who was well accustomed to gaining entry without an invitation, he took a thin stick and eased it through the narrow gap between the door and the frame. Sliding the twig upwards, he lifted the metal latch gently and quietly and then wrapped his other hand around the door-handle. He held his breath and pushed.
And the door swung open.