The back room of the pub was cluttered with beer-barrels, of which several were full but many more were empty and stood in high columns against the walls. The room smelt musty and the stone floor was damp beneath the stranger’s feet.
Clusters of rat droppings had formed in one corner of the room and he could hear quiet scratching sounds that told him the culprits were not far away. Two broken chairs rested in the centre of the room, one set upside-down on top of the other.
From the main tavern, he could hear a monotonous voice speaking in a constant drone. He made his way silently to the connecting door and listened closely. The voice was talking about agendas and majority votes. He stepped into the room.
It took a moment or two before anyone realised he was there. When he was spotted it was by the large man on the far side of the table, who grunted and pointed excitedly at him. The woman tried to calm him whilst the two men pushed themselves to their feet.
‘Oi! Who are you?’ the shorter man demanded.
‘My name’s Branga. A friend sent me.’
‘Well we’re closed, mate,’ the landlord continued, ‘come back tomorrow.’
‘I’m here to join the R.L.’
The two men exchanged worried glances and then the older man spoke.
‘I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. We’re just having a quiet drink among friends.’
‘I know you, Raglyn,’ the boy said, refusing to be denied. ‘It was your nephew who sent me.’
As he said this, the colour drained from Raglyn’s face. ‘My nephew? You’ve spoken to him? How is he?’
Branga relaxed a bit. Now he had their attention. ‘He’s fine,’ the boy lied easily, ‘he’s eating well and making lots of new friends.’
‘Now I know you’re lying,’ Raglyn countered. ‘He’s never made lots of friends. He’s always been, well, a bit of a loner, shall we say.’
‘You’re right,’ Branga confessed. ‘He’s hating every minute of it and he’s barely eaten any of the slops that pass as rations. And he’d rather be here with us. I don’t want to go to war either, which is why I’m here; to do something about it.’
Raglyn looked over the boy’s shoulder as if expecting a whole squadron to file into the room but no one did. He looked from Senti to Gurta, who both just shrugged.
‘Fine,’ Raglyn replied, ‘let’s talk.’
The boy pulled up a chair and immediately found himself under interrogation from the rest of the group.
‘How old’re you, boy?’ the woman asked him.
‘Seventeen. And I’m not a boy, I’m a man.’
‘How did you find us?’ Raglyn demanded.
‘Followed you here from parliament.’ This reaction caused Raglyn to hang his head, ashamed that he’d led someone to their secret headquarters.
‘Why are you here?’ the burly landlord enquired.
‘To make a stand. I’m sick and tired of being oppressed. We have the right to free speech!’ The room fell silent, so he added, ‘plus I don’t want to get killed in Rejkland.’
The barrage of questions continued. ‘Why should we trust you?’
‘What can you do for the cause?’
‘How do you think we should end this war?’
‘Do you like cake?’
The final question came from Tanka and threw him more than any of the others had. When all questions had been satisfactorily answered, Branga began with his own questions. ‘So firstly,’ he asked, ‘what does R.L. actually stand for?’
‘Rektorian Libertarianists,’ Raglyn explained.
No, Rektorian Liberationists,’ Senti corrected him.
‘Oh,’ Gurta said, ‘I thought it was Rektal Liberators.’
‘Perhaps that’s a question for today’s meeting,’ Raglyn suggested, scribbling down a reminder on his notes.
‘How long have you been in action for?’ the boy continued.
‘About eighteen months,’ came the reply.
‘So what have you achieved so far?’ Branga asked and was met with silence. After a moment or two, Raglyn spoke up.
‘Well, in March we agreed that sending a strongly-worded letter would be a good start, however we have yet to agree on the exact wording and there is some debate over whether to address it to the king or to the general.’
Branga let out a laugh and then quickly stifled it when he saw only straight faces staring back at him. ‘Oh,’ he said quickly, ‘well it sounds like you’ve made a good start then. Um... when will the others be turning up?’
’Gurta frowned and then raised one eyebrow questioningly. ‘Others?’ he asked, confused.
‘Presumably there are other members of the movement? Other vigilantes desperate to restore Kappland to sanity?’ Branga’s eyes skipped from face to face, searching for answers.
‘Well, we’re a very exclusive order,’ Raglyn said slowly. ‘We can’t just allow anyone to join, in case our purpose is discovered. Do you know what they would do to us if they knew what we’re plotting?’
‘Well considering the extent of the plot so far is to send a letter, I would guess not much. Perhaps they’d confiscate your pen.’
Tanka laughed loudly, clapping his broad hands together in delight. Gurta scowled at him and clapped a hand onto his brother’s wrist.
‘Well d’you have any better ideas?’ Senti snapped.
‘We could build a barricade outside the doors of the Rektor barracks and stay there in protest to stop anyone from leaving.’
‘What if someone saw us?’ Gurta asked.
‘Well, surely that’s the idea,’ Branga countered.
‘I don’t know that I like the sound of that, y’know,’ Senti chipped in, ‘it gets awful cold of an evening and I couldn’t imagine it to be very comfortable sleeping outside.’
‘I know the man that coordinates all the training there; we could send him a letter?’ Raglyn proposed. He grinned suddenly, clearly pleased with himself, then began scribbling furiously to make sure he wrote down everything that was being said.
‘But we need to take ACTION! Just writing letters won’t get us anywhere. We need to get in front of their faces and make them see that we will not be silenced. We are the voices of the people!’ As Branga ranted, his volume increased and he began slapping the table in excitement. ‘We are the future! We are not just sheep to be ordered around. And once we have the strength of the people behind us then we will overthrow this fascist regime!’
He pushed himself to his feet, almost shouting at the blank faces in front of him. ‘United we stand! Garro’s dictatorship has gone on too long! We fight for democracy! We fight for liberty! We fight for our children, and our children’s children. We fight for justice!’
Branga fell silent as he gasped for breath, letting his words hang in the air as he surveyed the reactions of his comrades.
There was a long pause. Raglyn had stopped writing and was gazing at him in wonderment. Senti cleared her throat quietly. Even Tanka was speechless.
Gurta looked around, then seeing that no one else was going to say anything he broke the silence. ’Does anyone... want some toast?
Branga slumped back into his chair, defeated. Resigning himself to the fact that he wasn’t going to get a stronger reaction, he sighed despairingly. ‘Fine. But only if you have some nice jam.’
The rest of the afternoon drifted by Ryden in a blur. Hours upon hours of riding across dusty plains, where every landscape was the same, held no interest for him whatsoever. He’d been preserving his water as best he could but his throat was dry and his eyes stung from the constant clouds of dust being kicked up by the horses in front of him.
He’d long since lost the desire to hold a conversation, which was probably just as well because Melca was in a foul mood and snapped a sarcastic reply to everything he said. The sun burned a scorching path across the sky and even when it had started to drop towards the flat horizon the temperature was uncomfortably hot.
Ryden’s shirt was drenched with sweat and clung to him like a shipwrecked man to a floating timber. What I wouldn’t give to be bathing in the sea right now, he thought to himself. Was it really less than a week since he and Melca had been splashing around in the sea north of Sharbury? He was now nearly the other side of the country and so much had happened since then that it seemed almost like a dream.
His horse stumbled on a jutting rock and as it recovered its footing he patted the gelding’s neck, speaking softly to him as he did so. ‘There, Rusty, you’re all right. Good boy, that’s it.’
He realised also that the horse had started to learn all of his idiosyncrasies and was now reacting to his commands instinctively, almost before they were given. Ryden was impressed with the creature’s intelligence, particularly given the relatively short timeframe that they’d been travelling together.
Every time he shifted his position in the saddle, Rusty’s ears went up, waiting to see whether a new command would be given. If he leant forward then the gelding sped up and if he sat back in the saddle then his steed would slow to a walking pace. By the same token, Ryden became accustomed to reading the horse’s actions and if he felt that a rest was needed then wherever possible he would oblige.
Fortunately, Rusty seemed to be one of the fitter horses in the regiment and not for the first time Ryden thought of Wilbur and smiled. The man may have been a little eccentric but when it came to looking after his animals in the old stables back in Cadmir, he knew what he was doing.
Ryden wondered if many people had been to the village since he and Melca left. He imagined it as a ghost town, doors swaying in the breeze and animals roaming the houses freely. He conjured an image of goats chewing at his bed and pigs snuffling in the larder.
It was nonsense of course because he had shut and locked the doors and windows when he left, just as if he had been going into town for the day. But it was still his home, even if he could no longer live there. It was still the house he had grown up in; still the place where he had built all his memories of the last sixteen years.
He yawned. He was beginning to feel the tug of his eyelids trying to lure him to sleep. He reached for his canteen and had a sip of water, then poured a few drops onto his head and smiled as the cool liquid trickled down his face, rousing him.
He stood in his stirrups briefly and looked toward the horizon but still saw nothing up ahead apart from more dry earth and a few areas of scrub where vegetation had found a way to survive. He rolled his head from side to side until his neck gave a satisfying crack, then sat back down and patted Rusty’s neck gently as he let his imagination take over once again.
It was several hours longer before Molokai called them to a halt. The sun had sunk behind the horizon a couple of hours ago but the moon was bright and full and so they had continued on, trying to put as much ground behind them as possible before giving in to their aching muscles and nodding heads.
They stopped near a narrow stream that showed up as a line of green cutting through the arid landscape, where the damp soil gave the plants a much greater chance of survival. However, the stream was still very shallow, making it hard work for the men to fill their canteens and cooking pots with water.
Ryden and Melca knelt side by side at the water’s edge whilst further downstream all the horses had been led to a wider part of the watercourse and stood shoulder to shoulder, drinking thirstily.
‘Bread and cheese again,’ Melca moaned. ‘That’s all we’ve eaten all day. If that’s all we get for the next five days then we’ll starve before we get to Halgorn!’
‘Perhaps there’s still some dried beef left?’ Ryden suggested. Melca snorted contemptuously and Ryden understood why. They’d had a few pieces of beef that morning and it had been like eating leather, only with less flavour.
‘Forget that. I’m going to find us something worth eating. Look.’ He pointed to something on the other side of the stream. It looked to all intents and purposes like a small, hard piece of faeces.
‘I think I’ll stick with bread and cheese,’ Ryden said hurriedly.
‘Do you know what that is?’ Melca asked. Ryden tried to think of a tactful answer but it was not necessary because his friend continued. ‘It’s deer dung.’ So there must be some deer around here. And I’m going to catch us one. Get a fire going and I’ll be back as soon as I can.’
With that he stood and walked back to where he had set down his saddlebags and picked up the bow that lay next to them. He placed the foot of the bow in the instep of his shoe and bent down the top arm so he could slip the string into place over the notch of the bow.
Once the bow was strung he swept up his quiver of arrows, slung it over his shoulder and strode off through the camp. Once he’d left the rows of tents a few yards behind him, he turned back towards the stream and nimbly sprang across it.
He paused to scan the horizon and was amazed at how easily he could see everything by moonlight alone. It was almost as bright as dawn, except everything looked blue-tinted and cold, giving the landscape an ethereal feel.
He walked towards a small cluster of trees in the distance and as he did so he slid an arrow from the quiver and notched it to the string; a movement so natural to his fingers that his instinct took over whilst he kept his eyes fixed on his destination.
As he drew closer he slowed his pace, knowing that even the slightest noise would alert his prey to his presence. When he reached the first tree he stopped completely, alert to any sounds that would lead him to his quarry.
He waited in silence, standing stock-still, then after a few minutes he heard a dry twig cracking no more than thirty yards away. He turned towards the sound and scanned the undergrowth for movement. Nothing.
He cautiously crept towards the source of the sound, being careful with his own steps, until another movement caused him to stop dead in his tracks. As he watched, a tawny-coloured doe emerged from behind a low bush and began to forage at the foot of a large yerti tree.
Melca raised his bow gently in his left hand then with his right he placed the tips of three fingers on the back of the bowstring; one above and two below where the arrow was notched. He slowly drew the string back towards his right ear whilst he levelled his left hand ready to take aim.
Halfway through his draw, the bow creaked and he stopped immediately, waiting to see the deer’s reaction. The doe, alert now, pricked up her ears and jerked her head back, her eyes flicking from left to right as she tried to identify the source of the noise.
Melca froze, hoping she would relax again. Although he knew he would be able to complete the draw and release quickly enough, it was ill-advised to shoot a tense animal as it made the meat much tougher and less enjoyable to eat.
Instead he waited. Sure enough, once the doe realised there were no more sounds to be heard, she relaxed and lowered her head again, continuing to sniff around at the roots of the tree.
Carefully, Melca finished drawing the bow and then lined up the shot. He took aim not by looking along the arrow, a common fallacy in archery, but by instinct. He needed the target to appear a couple of inches to the left of his bow and a couple of inches above his left hand.
Satisfied that his aim was true, he let the string slide off his fingertips whilst his right hand continued its journey past his right ear. The string twanged straight; the bow trembled with the force of the shot; the arrow found its mark.
And the deer was dead.
Without ceremony, Melca unstrung his bow and slid it into the sheath that protected it when not in use. Walking to where the creature lay he removed the arrow, cleaned it on the grass and returned it to his quiver. He then lashed the doe’s legs together using strips of bark and slid his bow between the animal’s legs, parallel to its spine, to help him carry it back.
He paused before lifting the deer to his shoulders, concerned about getting blood on his shirt, but decided that as long as the wound faced outwards he should stay relatively clean. He then hoisted the creature to his back, holding one end of his bow in each hand so the weight of the animal rested on his shoulder-blades, and began to trudge back towards the camp.
As he did so he heard a loud series of cracks and rustles behind him and spun around, seeking out the source of the disturbance. He was about to give up and look away when the noise came again. This time, he saw a fleeting shadow above a bush not far from where he stood. He looked closely and saw nothing for a moment but then a creature with black fur darted out from behind a bush twenty yards away and plunged into the undergrowth. It was too fast for him to be able to get a good look but he was sure it wasn’t a deer. It had shorter, wider legs and its fur was thicker and darker than any deer he’d seen.
Confused and shaken, Melca set off again, walking swiftly. Once he was clear of the trees he glanced around again. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary he turned back and walked through the shallow stream to the camp.
When Melca reached his tent, Ryden was sitting in front of a fire chatting to Derry, Oak and Allisad. The lack of any wind meant that the fire was high and warm and beside Ryden were several sticks, two of which had been sliced open at one end.
When the other men in the regiment saw Melca approaching they stood and cheered. He was out of breath and sweating but only Ryden seemed to notice. ‘Don’t worry,’ he reassured the baker, ‘all this exercise is good for you.’
Oak lifted the deer from Melca’s shoulders, his formidable strength belying the weight of the carcass. He laid it on the ground in front of Allisad, who drew a long hunting knife and began to skin it expertly.
Drawing his own knife, Oak began to scratch and dig at the dry earth next to the fire, and instructed Derry to do the same on the other side of the blaze. Once he had started his hole, the big man poured some water into it from his canteen, softening the ground below to make digging easier.
Once he was satisfied with the depth of the narrow hole, he retrieved one of the split sticks and plunged it into the ground, hammering it down with the hilt of the knife. Derry mimicked the action, and soon they had prepared the fire for a spit-roast.
Meanwhile, men from all the other campfires had come around to clap Melca on the back and congratulate him on his kill, after which many of them then asked for a share of the meat. Melca just laughed and assured them that if there was any left after he and his friends had eaten, then it would be fair game for the rest of them.
As Allisad began to gut the animal, Ryden took the longest of the sticks he had gathered and began to whittle it down, stripping the bark from it and leaving it smooth and slightly moist from the sap it contained. He then inserted it through the mouth of the carcass and gently slid it through until it protruded from the creature’s rear end in a mess of blood.
Together Ryden and Allisad lifted the spit and rested it in the split ends of the upright poles, then stoked the fire so the flames licked at the meat. As the mouth-watering smell of fresh venison drifted around the camp, the five men sat down and resumed their conversation whilst their envious comrades looked on greedily.
Melca sat back and smiled broadly. He had earned this meal and he had also earned the respect of the men around him, many of whom had never used a bow before and were therefore unable to catch their own dinner. He gladly accepted the tot of whiskey that Derry handed to him and watched quietly as Oak began to turn the massive spit.
An hour later, when he and his companions had eaten their fill, there was still plenty of meat left and so he allowed others to come and help themselves. He modestly refused to take credit for the tenderness of the meat, explaining that he had no hand in the cooking or preparation of the food, but nevertheless it was with a sense of pride that he settled himself down that night, gazing up at the stars until sleep overtook him.