It was almost midnight in the Lawrum Inn and the fire had started to gutter in the hearth. Senti stood to add more firewood and then paused to steady herself on the table.
It had been a strange evening.
After the boy Branga had arrived, the R.L. had held the most heated debate that they’d had since they formed the order over a year ago. However, in the midst of discussions Gurta needed to open the pub for trade, at which point Raglyn went to hide in the upstairs quarters to avoid being seen outside his usual social circle and causing controversy.
Senti had remained at the table with Tanka and Branga, trying to make small talk for hours whilst the rest of Rektor got progressively more drunk and violent. As the evening wore on, the punters began to dissipate until there were so few left that Gurta asked them to finish their drinks and be on their way.
That was half an hour ago. Now Raglyn had emerged from where he had been sitting upstairs, whiling away the hours, and Gurta and Tanka had returned the room to its previous state, which included removing all the broken chairs and glasses and washing up all the remaining tankards.
Branga and Senti were drunk and had put the world to rights over several bottles of wine whilst they’d been waiting for the general public to leave the tavern. She’d found out a lot more about the boy’s background and now had a supreme respect for what he’d been through and how resilient he’d become.
Even though he had nothing and had learnt to survive on his wits alone, he still felt that something could be done to improve his situation; he had an underlying optimism that was surprising considering the difficult life he had been lumbered with.
Senti found that inspiring. She also found him to be a good listener. She had talked for hours about Glyn, her husband who had died when the Kappish army had invaded Valihall, and yet Branga had listened patiently and sympathetically. When they had both said their piece they talked about the king and his general and why those in power had caused all of this heartache.
For Senti, it seemed obvious. The king’s greed to grow his empire was what sent Glyn to war and ultimately to his death. That was why, when Gurta had confided in her that he was starting an underground movement, she had been eager to be a part of it.
Branga’s reasons for joining were more subtle. It was his belief that no one in Kappland, save the king and the general, wanted a war to happen. However there was no democracy, no opportunity for the people of Kappland to put their foot down and say no.
The one thing they did agree on was that a new regime was needed. A system where the voice of the common man (or woman, as Senti had emphasised) would have just as much clout as a nobleman.
For most of their conversation Tanka had been sitting with them. He was unable to understand the discussion however Senti was kind to him and kept giving him things to keep him entertained. Once the pub was empty and Raglyn and Gurta had rejoined them, they continued the debate with renewed enthusiasm.
‘Wha’ we need t’do...’ Branga slurred, ‘ iz ged loadsa people to join uz. The more peeps we got, the bedder we can show’m who’s boss.’
Melca awoke to a ferocious wind whistling through the camp. It was early and although the sky had started to lighten, the sun was still hidden beneath the horizon in the east. The wind blew a swirling cloud of dust into his face, causing him to splutter and reach for his water-bottle.
Taking a quick draught, he blinked rapidly, trying to build up enough tears to wash the grit from his stinging eyes. Just as they began to clear, another gust swept over him, causing him to curse and shield his face with his hand.
He fumbled for the bag that lay between him and the sleeping form of Ryden. Finding it, he delved into it to find the coin-chest that he knew was hidden there. Withdrawing the chest, he unwrapped the sheet they had been using to protect the small wooden box and tore off a strip about three inches wide and a yard long.
He held it up in front of the guttering coals that glowed dully a few feet away and found he could see through the material easily. Satisfied, he tied the strip around his head to protect his eyes, careful not to allow any folds in the material to obscure his vision.
Wide awake now he stood up and stretched, looking around him as he did so at the rows of sleeping men. Some were silent and peaceful whilst others were snoring, grunting and fidgeting. He chuckled to himself. This was the army. Dozens of tough Rejk warriors, the men charged with defending the country, lay defenceless in front of him sleeping like babies.
Well not quite like babies. Babies tended to wake up and cry every few hours and he didn’t expect hardened warriors to be doing that. Nonetheless, he was glad the enemy couldn’t see them like this.
Deciding to use this alone-time for a bit of shooting practice, Melca picked up his bow and quiver and walked to the edge of the camp. He carved a target into the trunk of a large tree, took a hundred paces back and strung his bow. He rubbed his hands together to warm the knuckles and then clipped his bracer into place on his left forearm.
He withdrew an arrow and gently held it against the bow, clipping the nock onto the string. Curling his fingertips around the string he began to draw it back slowly, bracing the heel of his left hand against the bow as he felt the tension in the string build up.
When he reached full draw the knuckle of his right thumb rested just below his jaw and he held the pose for a moment, feeling the pull on his muscles. After many years of archery, the baker’s right bicep and the muscles across the back of his right shoulder were extremely well-developed; so much so that when he removed his shirt, his right arm was noticeably bigger than his left.
Holding his breath, Melca released the string and it whistled past his cheek, sending the arrow hurtling across the plain and hammering into the tree in the space of a couple of seconds. He lowered his bow and squinted towards the target. From where he stood, it looked to have landed about three inches from the central point. Not bad, he thought to himself, reaching for the next arrow.
The sun was now peeping over the horizon and as there were few clouds to be seen, the light spread quickly across the sky. Melca completed the end with seven more arrows; each one landing within a few inches of the target’s centre.
Unbeknownst to him the rest of the regiment had begun to wake up and when his final arrow thudded into the target he was greeted with a round of applause from seven or eight men who had gathered behind him to watch. Baffled, he looked back at the target. The arrows were grouped reasonably well but he felt there was nothing exceptional about his shooting.
Then he realised the reason for the applause. He was still wearing the piece of cloth over his eyes and it must have looked as though he was shooting blindfold. He grinned broadly and decided to play along. Pulling the material down from his eyes, he asked innocently, ‘how did I do?’
Suddenly the men clamoured around him, wringing his hand and asking him questions. ‘Where did you learn to shoot like that?’ ‘How did you manage to stay on target?’ ‘Can you teach me to shoot like you?’
Melca just smiled warmly and replied, modestly; ‘it was nothing, really. I’m sure there are lots of archers who could do the same; I was merely warming up the bow.’ He strolled across the dry ground to collect his arrows, followed by the men who continued with their questions.
Elsewhere in the camp, men were packing up tents, tending their horses and practising with their own weapons. A few men had swords, many more had spears or poleaxes, a couple had bows and one rider had a crossbow.
The range of equipment that the troop carried was matched by an equally wide range of abilities; Ryden was pleased to see that he was one of the more skilful swordsmen and what he lacked in strength he more than made up for with speed and agility.
As he went through some basic manoeuvres with Derry, who fought with a sturdy short spear, he saw Molokai approaching and lowered his sword. The other men around him did the same. When he had the attention of the men, the Horsemaster General cleared his throat and began to speak; his rich, deep voice resonating through the crowd.
‘You all know why you are here. We are riding to battle! It is good to see that you have the motivation to use your weapons but some of you seem to lack the basic skill to be able to do so! I have also noticed that some of you are simply itching for a fight. Therefore, I have decided to hold a tournament.’
An excited muttering began amongst the men and Molokai immediately raised his hand for quiet. ’We will fight the first round this morning before we set off. I will put you into pairs and supervise the duels. The rules are simple; you are aiming to knock your opponent to the ground.
’I do not want you to cut and maim each other however I will allow punches and kicks. The Author knows you will suffer far worse when the Kapps get here, so you need to be able to fight through pain. You will each fight with a close combat weapon of choice; no bows, slings or crossbows.
‘We will fight another round each time we stop and eliminate the losers until we are down to two men. The winner of the final duel will receive...’ he reached into a purse at his belt and held up a pair of gold coins to illustrate his next point, ‘...two guineas.’
A ripple of disbelief coursed through the gathered men. Two guineas was an extremely generous prize and many of these men would have to work for six months to earn that amount of money. The more intelligent among them calculated that from sixty men, one would only need to win six duels to secure that prize.
Melca moved alongside Ryden, a stricken look on his face. ‘I can’t fight in close combat, Ry!’ he hissed. I’ve never even punched anyone, let alone fought someone with an axe or sword!’
Ryden rested a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder. ‘Relax, Mel. The tournament is designed to give you that experience in a safe environment, where the person you are fighting has no malicious intent. You have your cutlass; do you remember the blocks I taught you?’
Melca swallowed hard and nodded. His palms were sweating and he wiped them on his leggings. Before he had a chance to say anything more, the black general was striding amongst them, pushing people into pairs.
Melca was thrust in front of a tall man with long blond hair, wielding a thick quarterstaff. He smiled and held out a hand. ‘I’m Farik,’ he said cheerfully.
Melca shook his hand quickly, then withdrew. ‘I’m Melca,’ he mumbled in return.
Elsewhere, Ryden had been selected to fight a stocky, balding man with a network of scars across his face and arms, suggesting he had seen more than his fair share of fights already. The man drew a pair of knives from his belt and scraped them together, causing a grating sound that set Ryden’s teeth on edge.
Once all the duels had been agreed, the contenders were put into two lines facing each other, about fifteen feet apart. Molokai strode through the gap between the two lines, surveying the selections he had made.
Noticing that he had paired the boy, Garvin, with Oak, he made a quick change to give the boy a less intimidating opponent. Pointing to another young man who was a good foot shorter than Oak, he switched the two around. Then, when he was happy with the remaining pairs, he counted down from three.
Melca wiped his palms on his leggings again, then drew his cutlass and licked his lips nervously. Ryden rotated his sword wrist one last time while his opponent cracked his knuckles, a leer spreading across his face.
Molokai finished his countdown and clapped his hands loudly. The two lines advanced.
And the duels began.
Farik took two slow steps forward. Melca’s feet remained anchored to the ground. The clash of metal on metal rang loudly in his ears and the swift movements all around him threatened to distract him from his own opponent.
The taller man stepped forward again warily, holding his quarterstaff horizontally and moving his hands in small circles, as if pedalling with the weapon. Melca hefted his cutlass slowly, trying to familiarise himself with the weight of the blade.
Farik swung the right hand side of the staff in towards Melca’s left shoulder and Melca parried it quickly. The tall man seemed in no rush and stepped back again, continuing to oscillate the staff in mid-air. He swung in again, this time aiming for Melca’s left knee, and was again hastily knocked aside.
Melca swung a clumsy overhead blow toward the man, forgetting in the heat of the moment that he was not aiming to kill his foe. It didn’t matter, because Farik merely raised the quarterstaff above his head and the blow fell harmlessly onto the thick wood.
Melca jumped backwards, then regaining his footing he charged in and swung the blade towards Farik’s left shoulder. Farik took a step back, causing Melca to stumble as his swing followed through, putting him off-balance. Seizing the opportunity, Farik slammed the staff into Melca’s shoulder-blades and sent him sprawling to the ground.
Melca quickly rolled to his back, his sword raised, to see Farik standing above him smiling. The blond man was holding his staff in his left hand, resting it on the ground beside him, whilst his right hand was extended, offering to help Melca to his feet.
The duel was over. It had only taken a matter of seconds and yet Melca felt exhausted from the adrenalin release and ashamed of being beaten so quickly and comprehensively. He allowed the other man to help him up, then sheathed his cutlass and began to brush himself off.
Farik leaned in to him. ‘Don’t feel bad,’ he said in an undertone, ‘It isn’t really a fair test, pitting archers against warriors. I watched you this morning and I know that in a shooting contest you’d defeat me just as quickly.’ The man’s kind words reassured him and he allowed himself a smile.
Around him, most of the other duels were still in full swing so he walked over to where he could see Ryden spinning and grappling with his own opponent.
The man was holding both of his knives like daggers, his thumbs covering the hilts, which allowed him the freedom to punch. He was also able to parry Ryden’s sword with the blades although it quickly became apparent to Melca that Ryden was not fighting at his best either, presumably because he was concerned about slashing the man and doing some real damage.
Nonetheless, he was still holding his own. He was able to duck out of the way of most of the man’s wild swings and as Melca watched he saw Ryden get in a punch of his own; a left-handed swing that connected with the man’s jaw, causing it to crack loudly. The man spat a mouthful of blood and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
He stepped back once then charged in, catching Ryden off guard. Ryden flung up his left arm to shield himself and the man’s knife sliced across his forearm, causing him to cry out.
They both began to circle. Ryden swung his sword in towards the man’s hip, confident that if he connected at that point he wouldn’t do too much damage. The man parried without great difficulty and then swung his right arm in, making Ryden once again throw his left arm up in a block. As he did so, the man smashed his left fist into Ryden’s nose, causing his nostrils to erupt with blood.
Ryden’s vision swam and he stumbled backwards to buy himself a couple of seconds. Seeing him on the back foot, his opponent kicked out at his knee, trying to buckle it. Ryden spotted the movement and managed to catch the man’s ankle, then without a second thought he hauled it upwards. The stocky man was not flexible and the moment his foot passed higher than his waist he fell backwards, hitting the ground hard.
He tried to leap to his feet and continue the duel but Molokai happened to be passing and he grasped the man’s shoulder firmly. ‘That’s enough,’ he said softly before walking on to judge the remaining contests.
Ryden sank to his knees and then sat down on the dusty ground to ease his dizziness. Melca rushed over to make sure he was all right and pushed a handkerchief into Ryden’s hand to allow him to stem the flow of blood from his nose.
‘How do you feel, Ry? Are you light-headed at all? You’ve lost a lot of blood. This contest was a ridiculous idea from the start; imagine Molokai setting his men upon each other. I think I’ll go and speak to him for you, it’s not fair that you should have to...’
Ryden cut him off. ‘I’m fine Mel, I’m absolutely fine. Stop fussing! It’s only a nosebleed...’
‘...and a gash in your arm,’ Melca added.
‘Yes, and a gash in my arm. But that’s nothing. You have to stop worrying! Anyway, I won didn’t I?’
‘You’d have done better to lose!’ Melca snorted. ‘Now you’ve got to go through that all again next time we stop. Honestly, Ry, I don’t know what to do with you sometimes!’
All the other fights had now finished and Melca’s mollycoddling was quickly stifled when Molokai clapped his hands loudly.
‘Victors, gather round me please!’
Ryden got to his feet and headed over towards where the Horsemaster General stood. A swarthy, square-jawed man with a goatee beard drew up alongside him as he walked. Ryden didn’t recognise him and guessed that he had been in the rearguard squad on the march.
‘Isn’t your boyfriend joining us?’ he sneered at Ryden. Ryden glanced at him and sniffed loudly, ignoring the comment.
‘It’s very sweet how he made such a fuss of you after your fight,’ the man continued, testing for a reaction.
‘He’s just a mate.’ Ryden said curtly, refusing to take the bait. Just as the man opened his mouth to speak again, Molokai clapped loudly.
‘Right, men,’ he boomed, his deep voice carrying clearly through the group, ‘thirty of you have won your fights and are through to the next round.’ A few of the men cheered.
‘The next round will be held at our last daylight stop and you will fight in the following pairs.’ He glanced around for a moment, trying to choose suitable combinations. ‘Oak Armstrong and Pardo Mason, Lieutenant Brown and Yorick Smith, Garvin Fish and Derry Merchant...’ He continued reeling off names until he came to Ryden. ‘Ryden Smith and Braegor Black...’
Ryden cast his eyes around the small group to see which fighter was Braegor and found that it was the man who had just been taunting him. The man grinned nastily at him, showing Ryden a mouthful of discoloured teeth. Ryden laughed at him in a show of confidence and then turned back to Molokai to hear the remaining pairings.
Once the announcements were complete, the fighters returned to their horses to prepare for another long day of riding. Allisad caught up with Ryden to congratulate him on winning his fight.
‘I didn’t see much of it myself but you must’ve done something right if you’re here. Good luck for the next round.’
‘I think I only scraped through, Alli,’ Ryden confessed. I was on the back foot and somehow found an edge, that’s all.’
Allisad put a friendly arm around Ryden’s shoulders. ’You know what though, Ry? That’s what it’s all about. Finding the edge. It doesn’t matter how many battles your opponent has won, how fast they are or how strong they are. If you can find an edge and use it to your advantage, then you can still win.
‘Have you heard the tale of Melgarik and Elron?’ he continued. Ryden shook his head. ‘Melgarik is a man of legend in Kappland; one of the strongest heroes we’ve ever had. He fought in three major wars in a thirty-year period, between 307 and 336. He was cunning, fast, brave and incredibly tough. Some would say he was still at the peak of his physical form when he died.’
‘So how did he die?’ Ryden asked, absent-mindedly running his hand across the cut on his left arm.
’Well there’s the interesting thing. Melgarik was killed by a man of eighteen, after reputedly rutting with the young man’s fiancée the night before. The shamed lover, Elron, had confronted him in a busy street and called out a challenge.
’For anyone to challenge the king’s champion, for so he was at the time, seemed incomprehensible; especially when the man who issued the challenge was a ten-stone weakling. However, as the story goes, Melgarik accepted the challenge without missing a beat and began pacing towards the young man.
’Elron stood his ground, axe in hand, and watched the hero draw the immense broadsword that hung between his shoulder-blades and almost grazed the floor. He waited until Melgarik was mere feet away. Then he whipped out a knife and flung it into the champion’s eye.
’Before Melgarik could recover, the man swung the axe up between his opponent’s legs, crippling him. Half-blind and in agony, Melgarik was helpless to stop the axe from crashing down on his unprotected neck.
‘Elron was not much more than an inexperienced boy and he faced the best fighter of his day. But he had an edge.’
Ryden smiled. Listening to Allisad’s story made him feel like a young boy again, listening to the tales his father used to tell him. These were often about heroes and champions who were undefeated and indestructible. They were wonderful stories, littered with kings and queens, gold and jewels and fair maidens in need of rescue.
But every once in a while they spoke of individuals who achieved against the odds, and these were Ryden’s favourites. The rags-to-riches stories, the myths that saw ordinary people do extraordinary things. These were the ones that inspired him to think that no matter how normal he was and how unexceptional his abilities were, he could still one day make a name for himself.
He was surprised to find that Allisad’s tale had brought back a surge of emotions he had not felt since childhood. And then he began to daydream.
He dreamt he was a hero on a noble quest; a beacon of light facing a terrible evil. He had a mission which, if successful, would become a defining moment in history. Then he realised it wasn’t a dream any more. And maybe, just maybe, he would make his impact on the world after all.