In the cold mid-morning, an old man with a racking cough and a small boy with a curtain around his shoulders arrived at the westward gates of the city of Rektor. The man was unshaven and both of them looked equally shabby from sleeping rough the night before.
As they approached they saw a solitary guard tossing a spear from one hand to the other, looking straight at them but showing no sign that he had seen them.
When they were less than three feet away and had still received no acknowledgement of their presence, they stopped. After an awkward silence, the old man cleared his throat. The guard suddenly grasped the spear in both hands and hammered the base of the shaft into the mud at his feet. The boy jumped back, startled, however his grandfather held his ground.
‘May we pass?’ Balenor asked the guard.
‘Why?’ the guard asked.
‘To enter the city. We’re visiting someone.’
‘Who?’ countered the guard sharply.
‘Garrold and Raina,’ Balenor improvised quickly.
‘Never heard of them,’ the guard retorted, a hint of suspicion in his voice.
‘Why would you have done? You can’t be expected to know the many thousands of people who live in this city.’
‘Can’t just let anyone in,’ the guard grumbled. ‘There’s a war on, you know. How do I know you’re not Rejk spies?’
‘Well we wouldn’t be approaching from the west of the city, for one thing. Anyway, do we look like soldiers or spies to you? I’m just taking my grandson to visit his aunt and uncle.’
The guard mumbled something else, then quickly turned on his heel and stomped back to the gate, swinging it open begrudgingly and allowing the pair to pass through. Once they were on the other side and about to join the bustling throng moving through the city, he called after them, ‘I’ll be watching you! Any espionage and I’ll know about it!’
Content with himself, the guard relocked the gate and went back inside the small wooden hut that passed for a guardroom to finish his cup of Deria in peace.
Balenor ushered John forward, keeping close by his side, until they reached a quieter area of town behind a line of market stalls. He stopped and squatted down on the cobblestones so he was at eye level with his grandson and then spoke gently.
‘Well, lad, we’re here. Rektor; the hub of everything. Do you know what they call it in the nearby towns? The City That Doesn’t Think.’
‘It’s very busy, Gramps,’ John said, not knowing what else to say. ‘What will we do now we’re here?’
‘I don’t know, my boy,’ came the response. ‘I honestly don’t know.’
The day dragged on slowly for Ryden and although he enjoyed riding, he had never spent so much time in the saddle before in all his life. His buttocks and thighs ached terribly and the small water canteen he carried was always empty long before he had the opportunity to refill it, no matter how sparingly he drank from it.
He noticed that Melca had taken to carrying two water bottles and decided that when they stopped at Halgorn he would buy a couple more for himself, before the onward journey to Rektor. Melca didn’t seem to be taking too well to life on the road. He looked pale and Ryden wondered whether he was coming down with something. He spent large parts of the journey saying nothing; his eyes fixed on the distant horizon and his mind elsewhere.
Ryden leaned back in the saddle and winced as his muscles complained. Wiping his forehead with his palm, he withdrew his hand and glanced down at the sweat glistening there. He wiped it dry on the thigh of his trousers.
He had been riding without a shirt for the last few days and he’d developed a strong tan, especially on his arms and shoulders. He was pleased with this and thought it made him look a lot older. He had also started to develop thick stubble along his jaw-line and on his top lip. He idly rubbed his hand over his chin.
The sun was now dropping quickly and it wasn’t long before Molokai brought the column to a halt. Allowing the men to dismount and tend their horses, the black horsemaster walked amongst the men, stretching his legs and chatting to the riders as he passed.
Ryden watched with interest. He’d noticed that on occasion the man seemed sombre and taciturn, however today he was laughing and joking with the men. He clearly had their respect and he struck Ryden as a charismatic leader.
Once the regiment had been at a standstill for a short while Molokai clapped his hands, put his fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. The conversations ceased and all eyes turned to him.
‘We’ll hold the next round of our tournament very shortly, so if you’re due to fight then now’s the time to get ready!’ he bellowed, then turned and continued the conversation he had been having with Allisad.
Ryden quickly drew his sword and began stroking the blade with a whetstone that he carried in his saddle-bags, his expression grim and determined. Picking up on this, Melca placed a hand on his shoulder, which Ryden shook free.
‘What’s wrong, Ry?’ Are you nervous?’
‘No. I’m fine.’ Ryden spoke curtly, his words punctuated by the short, sharp rasps of the whetstone. ‘It’s him who should be nervous.’
‘Why? Isn’t he very good?’ Melca ventured.
‘Don’t know. But he won’t win,’ Ryden said through gritted teeth. Melca looked over to where the other man, Braegor, stood. He sneered back at Melca, then began going through a few moves to warm up his muscles. Ryden caught the look as well.
‘I’m going to cut that stupid little beard right off his smarmy face,’ Ryden said with a scowl.
‘Why don’t you like him?’ Melca asked, taken aback by the threat.
Ryden paused for a moment before responding. ‘It’s not that I don’t like him,’ he stated. ‘I want to win; that’s all there is to it.’
Melca raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Ryden put the whetstone back into his saddle-bags and as he did so, Molokai ordered the men into two lines as before.
Ryden lined up opposite Braegor, who was hefting a large poleaxe and frequently switching it from one hand to the other. The man ran his tongue across his front teeth and thrust out his jaw. Ryden just stood stock-still, keeping his eyes on the axe.
Molokai counted down from three and then Ryden charged at Braegor. The man swiftly parried his lunge and Ryden paused to regain his footing. To Ryden’s right, Allisad was fighting Yorick; one of the other men in their unit. Although Melca was concerned about his friend’s safety, his eyes were drawn to the adjacent fight.
He knew Yorick to be extremely fast but the man looked positively lethargic compared to Allisad. He watched the Kapp leap into the air, twisting his body whilst bringing his sword round in a glittering arc. Yorick brought his own sword up in the nick of time, deflecting the blow at the last minute.
But even as he did so Allisad switched his sword-hand, spun on his heel so that he had his back to his opponent, and pressed the flat of his blade onto Yorick’s unprotected neck. Whilst the man was distracted, Allisad looped his foot behind the other man’s ankle and pushed him backwards, throwing him to the ground.
The fight was over in a matter of seconds. Melca was impressed but quickly returned his attention to where Ryden was fighting. Ryden’s style of combat was all about speed and agility, whereas his opponent was strong and more inclined to hold his ground; deflecting blows rather than evading them.
Ryden rained down blows on his foe but none were thrown with enough force to break the man’s defences. After one such thrust, Braegor succeeded in ensnaring Ryden’s sword beneath the blade of his axe, which he twisted sharply in an attempt to wrench the blade from Ryden’s grip.
Ryden responded by hammering a fist into the man’s stomach, causing him to double over whilst Ryden retrieved his sword. Without a moment’s pause he cracked the pommel of the sword down onto Braegor’s skull; the large counterweight heavy enough to temporarily blot the man’s vision with bright lights.
Ryden shouted and brought his knee up into the man’s face, missing his nose by inches. The man stumbled backwards, dazed, clutching the back of his head. He clumsily swung his poleaxe towards Ryden’s head but the smith managed to catch the haft of the axe in his left hand.
Keeping hold of the weapon, Ryden again used the sword-pommel, this time slamming it into the man’s fingers, crushing his knuckles. The man cried out in pain and relinquished his hold on the axe.
Flinging the weapon behind him, Ryden advanced on the unarmed man. Realising he was beaten, Braegor held up his hands and dropped to his knees, calling: ‘I submit! I submit!’
Ryden’s eyes flashed with exhilaration and for a moment Melca thought he was going to attack the man once more. Then he slowly lowered his sword and scanned the faces around him, taking stock of his surroundings for the first time.
Several of the fights were still ongoing and the clash of weapons continued to sound a cacophonous symphony. Ryden sheathed his sword and then examined his hands and arms, looking for damage that he may not be aware of.
Braegor got to his feet, shaken, and took a shuddering breath. He narrowed his eyes at Ryden, silently retrieved his axe, then turned on his heel and strode away.
As before, when all the fights were completed Molokai called the fifteen victors to him. ’I am impressed with the fights I have seen. Some of you have skills that are quite exceptional.
’Although I am running this competition to judge the most effective individual, we will need to fight as a unit when we face the Kapps. The man you have just defeated may be standing next to you in battle. It may be his skills that save your life.
‘With that thought in your mind, please share your knowledge with all the men here when training. Offer coaching and advice to ensure that each and every one of you can fight to the best of your ability when the Kapps march in.’
The horsemaster’s eyes scanned the crowd to see whether his request had sunk in. When he was confident that the message was clear, he continued.
‘Tomorrow morning we will fight the next round. To even up the numbers, I will ask one of you to sit out the next stage.’ He turned to Allisad and smiled. ‘Having won his fight in the shortest amount of time, Lieutenant Brown here will, I am sure, be happy to aid me in judging tomorrow’s fixtures instead.’
Allisad returned the smile. ‘It would be my pleasure, sir.’
‘Wonderful.’ Molokai clapped his hands. ‘Now let’s see if we can get a few more miles behind us before the sun goes down!’ he proposed to the gathered crowd.
With a chorus of grumbles and groans, the travel-weary men turned and trudged back to their horses.
The next day followed exactly the same pattern and Melca found himself tiring of the whole routine. He was required to wake up early with the rest of the regiment, have a quick, tasteless breakfast of oats boiled in water (he would have preferred milk but none was available) and then do some archery practice whilst others either practised their combat skills or warmed up for their tournament fights.
This morning, Melca had watched in suspense as Ryden fought against yet another skilled opponent, winning out at last after a closely-contested duel with a seasoned soldier, who at the crucial moment stumbled and left himself open to Ryden’s backhand swing and subsequent trip.
The result meant that Ryden and Allisad, along with six others, would be fighting for a place in the final four, which Molokai had cited as the semi-finals.
Melca was riding alongside Ryden, who had a bandage around his left bicep from his most recent fight. The majority of the ride was spent in silence as both he and Ryden wrestled with their own fears and apprehensions.
As they drew ever closer to Halgorn the terrain became more rugged and instead of the dry, arid landscapes they had traversed on the previous few days, they now rode over dry yellow grasslands.
Melca had seen other signs of life, too. Various rodents, such as mice and ferrets, scampered around in the scrub-like vegetation and on more than one occasion he had seen hares. He made a mental note to try to catch a couple when they next stopped.
The weather, too, seemed to change as they got further north. It was still hot but there were a lot more clouds in the sky and from time to time, one would pass in front of the sun and give the column of riders some welcome shade.
He took a long swig from his flask and dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief. He longed for the journey to be over but he knew that no sooner would they arrive at Halgorn than he would have to set out again with Ryden to go to Rektor.
He remembered that Allisad also intended to go with them and cursed. The man was untrustworthy. Either he had turned against his own country, as he would have the Rejks believe, or he was acting as a double-agent trying to bring down the Rejk army from the inside. Either way he was lying to someone and Melca didn’t like it.
He considered the possibilities. If Allisad was still loyal to the Kappish cause then surely he would have killed King Rogar back at the castle when he had the chance. However if he truly wanted to help Rejkland win the war then surely returning to Rektor would be a suicide mission for him.
Melca shook his head, trying to make sense of it all. Soon it will all become clear. Until then, I’ll prepare for the worst and watch my back.
Six hours after noon the riders stopped for their evening meal. As campfires were started and meals were prepared, Molokai called the eight remaining tournament fighters to him. He quickly selected the pairings for the next round and Ryden was picked to face off against Oak.
Melca saw Ryden glance over at the larger man, who shrugged and flashed him an apologetic smile. They both moved away to warm up and while they were doing so, Derry came and sat himself down next to Melca.
‘Should be an interesting fight,’ he observed.
Melca didn’t respond. He had been concerned for Ryden in every single round but knowing he was fighting someone as large as Oak made the concept even more nerve-racking.
‘Do you think Ryden will win?’ Derry continued.
Melca shrugged. ‘I don’t know. He’s quite quick, but...’ the baker fell silent, not wanting to share his fears.
Derry persisted. ‘I could give you good odds for Ryden, you know.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Melca, who’d had no experience of gambling before.
‘I’ll give you odds of five to one if Ryden wins. That means if you bet me a quart that Ryden will win the duel, I’ll give you five back if he does.’
Melca shook his head quickly. ‘I’m not gambling; my father always taught me that it’s a waste of money.’
‘It’s not a waste if you’re sure Ryden’s going to win. It’s just a vote of confidence,’ Derry coaxed. Seeing that he was getting nowhere, he sighed. ‘Never mind, you’ll kick yourself if Ryden wins.’ He stood and wandered over to where several other men stood discussing the fixtures.
Not far from where Melca sat, Ryden was stretching out the muscles in his legs and arms. He was preoccupied. As he went through a succession of movements designed to protect the muscles from unexpected damage, he realised why he was apprehensive about the upcoming fight. It wasn’t because he risked getting hurt – he knew that Oak was a gentle soul – but because he would feel weird fighting against someone whom he considered to be a friend.
How could he fight with conviction if he was concerned about injuring his opponent? The prospect worried him. However, he pushed these thoughts to one side as Molokai called the participants together to begin.
As Ryden stepped up to the line scratched on the ground, he felt his worries melt away. This was just a test and he had already won three such tests. He was good with his sword and he enjoyed the cheers that went up when the duel was over and he stood victorious.
Oak may be big but he’s slower than me. If I can just duck and weave for long enough, I’ll find a way to take him down.
A grin spread across his face. When Molokai clapped his hands, Ryden danced towards Oak, rolling the wrist of his sword hand as he did so. It soon became apparent that Oak was equally concerned about hurting a friend and for Ryden’s first few swings the big man made no attempt to counter the blows; instead just parrying them and brushing them aside.
Ryden was enjoying the match and he guessed that his confidence had become apparent because Oak began to venture a few swings of his own, although none of them were too difficult to sidestep or block.
The pace began to pick up and soon there were blows swinging in from all angles, accompanied on each occasion by the clash of steel as they landed. For the most part, Oak’s feet remained rooted to the ground whilst Ryden sprang lightly from one foot to the other, trying to create a gap he could take advantage of.
He spent a couple of minutes battling like this, searching for weaknesses that he could exploit but finding none. After a while, Oak started pacing forward, trying to drive him back. Ryden began to fret.
How am I ever going to topple this man? Now I know why he’s called Oak; this is like fighting a tree!
Each time Ryden stepped back, Oak pushed forward with more intensity. He knew Oak meant him no harm but to have him bearing down was extremely intimidating nonetheless.
The axe swung in again. It was a high back-handed swing and Ryden ducked under it. He tried to barge his opponent, throwing his entire weight against him, but Oak barely shifted. Using one arm, the man half-pushed, half-threw Ryden several yards backwards.
As Ryden struggled to keep his footing, Oak bounded forward, swinging the axe round at shoulder-height. Thrusting his sword up frantically, Ryden blocked the axe a few inches from his left shoulder and pivoted, turning his back to his opponent. Grabbing Oak’s wrist with his left hand, he squatted and used his opponent’s momentum to throw the giant over his shoulder.
Oak fell hard and lay dazed for a moment or two. Ryden blinked twice. The crowd were cheering. All of the other duels had finished but it took a few moments before recognition dawned.
They’re cheering for me. A smile grew on Ryden’s face. He’d won.
The rest of the evening was very strange for Ryden. After the troop had made camp and eaten they followed the same evening routine. This usually consisted of sitting around fires, sharing stories and anecdotes and generally relaxing after the day’s ride.
Tonight, however, Ryden’s evening was punctuated by various members of the troop asking him to talk about the fight with Oak. Some asked where he had learned to fight in the way he did, some disbelieved the outcome and asked if he had given Oak a bribe and still others wanted Ryden to be their sword-tutor and teach them his skills.
It was all extremely flattering but Ryden felt very self-conscious and insisted that only luck had allowed him to win. What made it all the more uncomfortable was the fact that Oak was sitting on the other side of the campfire to him.
The big man had accepted defeat in good humour, shaking Ryden’s hand and congratulating him, and he was now good-naturedly explaining to the gathered men what an awesome fighter Ryden was. All this just made Ryden even more embarrassed.
Only Melca was silent. He had encouraged Ryden to throw the fight rather than risk injury but Ryden’s pride wouldn’t allow it. Now he sat sullenly on the outside of the circle, envious of the attention his friend was attracting.
He crossed his legs and brushed at the dust that had accumulated on his trousers from the long ride. They were filthy, as were all the other clothes he had left Cadmir with. He’d had precious little opportunity to wash himself, let alone his clothes, and he hated it.
He’d taken to chewing mint leaves as he rode and of an evening he’d take off his shirt and scrub his armpits and chest with wet lemongrass. Even that, though, seemed pointless when he only had smelly clothes to put on the next day.
What am I doing here?
He cursed and threw a stone at a nearby tree. If he had his way, he’d be hidden in a quiet village somewhere, baking bread and minding his business. Instead he was riding through a country entrenched in war; getting closer to rather than further away from the death and destruction that the war was causing.
How did Ryden talk me into this?
He swigged from his waterskin, squeezing it too hard and causing the liquid to leak from the corners of his mouth onto his chin.
He’d always detested violence, even as a young boy. He recalled a day in his thirteenth year, when he’d been walking home from the schoolyard on the edge of the village. He was with three other boys of a similar age and had started arguing with one of them; a skinny boy called Travis.
The subject was something trivial but the row had become heated. Travis had shoved Melca and shouted at him.
‘Shut up, Melca! You don’t know anything!’
‘Go away,’ Melca had grumbled, realising the boy’s intent.
‘Why should I?’ The boy had kicked out at Melca then, catching his shin. Melca yelped and clutched his leg. The other boys had started to shout.
‘Kick him back, Melca! Punch him!’
Melca had just remained frozen, shaking his head. It wasn’t enough to deter Travis though, who had lashed out again, this time punching Melca in the stomach and knocking the wind from him.
‘Hit him back!’ The chorus of cries had returned.
A ginger-haired boy called Randall had shouted in his ear, ‘Come on Melca, you coward!’
‘Leave me alone!’ he’d snapped at the new threat.
Randall had pushed him then. ‘You’re a weakling, Melca. Come on, punch me! I dare you!’
‘You’re such a girl, Melca!’ Poras had chimed, punching him full in the face. Melca had staggered back, shocked, blood seeping from the corner of his mouth.
That was when the beatings began. From then on, his school life had been a misery. Although people intervened from time to time, he was regularly victimised and would often return home with a black eye or a split lip.
The memory made Melca furious. If only I’d had the guts to stand up for myself. But things were different now. He was alive and they were dead.
He looked around the campsite. There were still groups of people talking and laughing however many of the fires had reduced to glowing coals and a number of men had already retired to bed. Following their example, Melca stood and walked away from the fire, a single tear still wet on his cheek.