The next morning came quickly and it wasn’t long before the men were once again clustered around Molokai, excited now to see the outcome of the remaining tournament battles.
Allisad and Ryden stood side by side. Allisad was looking relaxed and nonchalant, whereas Ryden looked quite the opposite. The smith’s hand was subconsciously clenching his sword pommel so hard that his knuckles had turned white. His face was pale and already had a thin sheen of sweat glistening on his carved features.
Next to him stood two other men; the first was Farik, the blond warrior who had defeated Melca in the first round, and the second was a man named Pardo. Pardo was of a similar age to Allisad but squat and ugly, with a thick auburn beard trimmed short at the sides and kept longer at his chin, where it hung in a stubby plait tied off with cord.
Pardo stood resting his hand on a large, double-headed axe and the image of him reminded Melca of the dwarves he had read about in fairy-tales. He smirked suddenly, amused at the likeness, and made a mental note to share the thought with Ryden later.
The men in the camp slowly edged closer to Molokai, knowing from the format of the tournament that the next round was about to commence.
‘Four warriors,’ Molokai began, his rich, deep voice familiar now to the men crowding around, ‘with different skills and armament, yet all of whom are worthy fighters. Be proud of them, for you will soon fight alongside them.’ His eyes scanned the crowd, reading the reactions of the men he was charged to lead.
‘But only one can win the tournament. You have each picked your champion,’ he paused as rousing cheers went up, ‘and I know some of you have also invested in them through Merchant’s sweepstake,’ he gestured to Derry, who flushed bright red. It was clear that the trader’s son had not wished for the horsemaster to know of his money-making venture.
‘So we have two fights to watch this morning. Smith...’ he paused as Ryden stepped forward nervously, ‘will fight with Mason.’ Pardo Mason stepped forward, rubbing his bristling beard with a calloused hand.
‘And Weaver will fight Lieutenant Brown,’ Molokai continued, pairing Allisad with the blond Farik, who was leaning on his quarterstaff and smiling amiably.
‘The fights will take place separately, so every man can enjoy both contests. Who knows, you may even learn something from your comrades,’ he joked. ‘First, let us have Weaver and Brown.’
The crowd fell back a few paces, giving the contestants space, and Ryden hurried back into the crowd. He was followed shortly after by Pardo, who was pumping his axe up to his shoulder and down again, warming up his right bicep.
Allisad and Farik shook hands, then stepped back and waited for the signal. Molokai clapped his hands and they began to circle.
Paldar felt dismal. It was four days since he had sustained the injury to his shoulder and yet the pain had not let up. He thought it must be infected.
He was sitting on a stout wooden bench at the edge of the town, looking out over one of the many fields surrounding Poranthia. This whole area was now occupied solely by the Kapps however there were still a large number of defenders holed up in the more fortified buildings to the east of the city.
The wind caressed his hair and brought with it the smell of rapeseed from the expansive yellow field in front of him. It was a warm day but not hot enough to be considered stifling and in any other circumstances it would be a wonderful morning.
How he hated this war.
It wouldn’t be long before this town became a marker for the growing border of Kappland, as Delcia and Valihall had done before it. The Kapp forces in Poranthia now numbered almost double the population of the city, which also included women and children.
For this reason, Paldar had managed to escape from active combat, using his injury as an excuse. He now spent as much of his time as possible in isolation, trying to ignore the shouts and screams that filled the air constantly in the daylight hours.
He idly rotated his shoulder, careful not to break the large black scab covering his wound. The physician had explained to him that the external wound could take as little as two weeks to heal, however it would be a lot longer before the muscle was able to knit together again.
He didn’t understand any more than that but knew he would be unable to lift any weight with his left arm until the muscle had re-grown and he was able to develop it. This suited him just fine. In fact, he had pretended this was his strong arm to make sure he wasn’t called up for what many were calling ‘slaughter duty’.
Hearing several of his countrymen approaching, he quickly sat on the floor and bowed his head, hoping to remain unnoticed. The men were distracted and deep in conversation so they passed him by without a second glance.
Sighing, he returned to his seat and let his mind wander again, hoping to block out the sounds of the massacre that was happening a few hundred yards from where he sat.
It was the fastest, most skilful fight Ryden had ever seen. Both Allisad and Farik were so nimble that it sometimes seemed as though their feet didn’t touch the ground.
Allisad’s sword was flicking left and right, up and down within the blink of an eye and the sun kept glinting from the blade, making Ryden squint to avoid being dazzled. Farik’s quarterstaff was just as quick and he hammered both ends towards Allisad with such force that Ryden felt he would surely knock the Kapp unconscious if he made contact.
Every now and then their weapons would lock together somehow and they would grapple, each trying to disarm the other or to topple them for a quick victory. As Ryden looked on he felt a nervous shiver run down his spine as it dawned on him that he may yet have to do battle with one of them.
Which one would I prefer to fight?
The question appeared in his mind and he considered it for a moment. The instinctive answer was that he’d rather fight against a staff than a blade for damage limitation. However, he also knew that sword-fighters are much more likely to leave themselves open for counter-attacks, thus giving him more opportunities to get a quick win.
He began searching for weaknesses. No mean feat, considering these were probably the two best fighters he had ever seen. He noticed that Farik was more static; similar to how Oak had fought although not to such a degree. A trip, therefore, or another throw, may be the best way to floor him.
He found Allisad was more difficult to judge; partly because his fighting style was so similar to Ryden’s own. Then it hit him. He needed to identify what techniques he himself had found most difficult to defend against; what moves had almost defeated him.
Other than the brute strength of Oak, the most difficult moments had come when his weapon was trapped and his opponent had launched a counter attack. He therefore resolved that the best way to beat Allisad would be to take advantage of any opportunities to trap the man’s blade.
I wonder if Farik realises that?
He continued to watch the actions of the two men in front of him, their movements almost graceful in their elegance. Slash and parry. Thrust and riposte.
Allisad whirled his sword into a low cut, aiming for Farik’s left leg. Farik leapt over the sweep and adjusted his grip on the quarterstaff so that he was holding it like a double-handed sword. As he landed he brought it down with incredible speed, however Allisad had already recovered his blade and he raised it above his head just in time to catch the staff.
He then used the sword-hilt to push the staff down to his left, following the movement through so his entire body rotated, momentarily showing his back to Farik before bringing his sword round towards the weaver’s left shoulder.
Farik had already returned his hands to their previous positions on the staff and he quickly blocked the incoming swing before kicking the side of Allisad’s left knee. Allisad saw the kick coming in and bent his knee to absorb the impact, then used his left fist to deliver an uppercut to the blond man’s jaw.
Farik’s head jerked back but he didn’t hesitate in driving the left-hand side of his quarterstaff into Allisad’s belly, causing him to groan and double up briefly. He withdrew the staff and quickly swung it upwards towards Allisad’s face but the Kapp was able to step back and avoid the blow.
He immediately countered with an overhead sweep that Farik ducked under, before threading the quarterstaff behind his opponent’s knees in an effort to yank the man from his feet.
Without missing a beat, Allisad brought his knee up into the man’s face, causing his nose to crack ominously. Farik leapt back, then wobbled dangerously on his feet before charging in, swinging the staff furiously at the side of Allisad’s head.
Allisad parried the blow but Farik had anticipated this and quickly smashed the other side of Allisad’s face with the opposite end of his weapon. Allisad stumbled and swung his sword down to Farik’s right, slashing it across the taller man’s thigh.
They both staggered back and then Farik leapt forward a second time, jabbing the staff at Allisad’s chest. Allisad sidestepped and as Farik began to lose balance the Kapp hooked a foot around his ankle and gave an almighty shove, sending the blond giant sprawling face-down on the grass and provoking a roar of approval from the audience.
Allisad extended a hand to haul Farik back to his feet, then clapped him on the shoulder and smiled. Farik accepted the gesture and complimented Allisad on his skill before drifting back amongst the crowd.
Balenor sat in a narrow alley leading away from the cobbled main street in the city of Rektor. A chill wind whistled past him and he adjusted the curtain covering the boy who lay next to him, snoring gently.
He looked down at the face of his sleeping grandson and sighed. ‘What would your parents say if they could see what misfortune I’ve brought upon us?’ he said aloud. John didn’t stir.
Balenor was famished. They’d been in this city for two days and in that time they’d been able to scrounge a couple of apples that were just starting to rot, as well as a crust of stale bread. Balenor had taken only a couple of mouthfuls for himself, giving the rest to the boy whom he doted on; but it was not nearly substantial enough, even for an eleven year old.
He rubbed a wrinkled hand over the speckled stubble that was starting to grow on his chin. Even though his crown was now completely white, his facial hair still showed evidence of its former colour, which had been a dusty charcoal.
Next to him, John coughed and woke up. He swallowed a couple of times and ran a dry tongue around the inside of his mouth. ‘I’m thirsty Gramps,’ he said, his voice coming out as nothing more than a hoarse whisper.
‘I know, John; I know.’ Balenor shifted his gaze upwards and seeing the thick grey clouds clustered above him, he guessed it wouldn’t be long before the rain came. When it did, it would quench their thirst but also soak them to the skin. The thought of it made him shiver and he absent-mindedly wrapped his arms around his chest, as if trying to cling on to the scant warmth he had.
John sat up and huddled against the old man’s shoulder. Allowing the beginnings of a smile to form on his careworn face, Balenor raised his arm and reached around to comfort the boy. As he did so, his hand caught on something sharp and he pulled it away quickly, noting the blood welling up on his finger.
Putting the damaged knuckle in his mouth, he looked around for the offending object. Sticking out of the ground, one rough edge bending towards him, was a coin.
Carefully gripping it between thumb and forefinger, he prised it from the hard mud and held it up to examine it. It was a dented and bent three ru copper coin. He unfolded it, flattening it as much as possible, then began to brush the dirt off with his fingertips.
John watched in silence, waiting for his grandfather’s reaction. After a few moments, his patience was rewarded.
‘John? Let’s go find ourselves some breakfast!’
Melca sat cross-legged at the front of the crowd, listening to the buzz of animated conversation as Ryden battled with Pardo Mason. Even from this position, however, he didn’t have a good view of the fight.
This was primarily because he had his hands over his eyes. And for good reason. Ryden had been fighting for less than a minute and he already looked overwhelmed. The shorter man, a swarthy warrior with a myriad of scars decorating his forearms, was a devilish foe.
Not only was Pardo incredibly strong and powerful, he was also fast and agile. Added to this, his low centre of gravity meant his balance was better than his lanky opponent’s.
Melca slid his fingers apart just enough to see through them and immediately wished he hadn’t. He watched helplessly as Pardo jabbed the flat top of his double-headed axe into Ryden’s mouth, breaking the smith’s lips open on his teeth and causing a trickle of blood to pump steadily over his chin.
Ryden jumped back and dabbed at his mouth with the back of his hand, then decided it was futile to try to stop the bleeding. Pardo rushed in again and delivered a low sweep that caused Ryden to jump back frantically.
He swung again, this time at shoulder-height, and Ryden caught the blow with his sword; however the weight of the blow almost wrenched it from his grasp. Before he could recover, the bearded man buried a fist in his stomach and stood back as the boy doubled over, fighting for breath.
Ryden paced backwards and sideways, stalling for time, and as soon as he could muster some impetus he pounced forward with an overhead swing that Pardo batted aside almost casually. The response was a blistering riposte that Ryden managed to block instinctively before his conscious mind could comprehend what had happened.
He was using his sword double-handed to give him enough strength to keep the shorter man at bay. As Pardo took another high swing, Ryden ducked under it swiftly. His leading foot was just a few inches in front of the man so once the axe had passed overhead he sprung past him and planted an elbow in his opponent’s spine, causing him to curse and arch his back.
Suddenly it no longer felt like a friendly duel. If he hadn’t been quick enough, that last swing could have decapitated him. Panic welled up inside him but he pushed it down and focussed on the fight. The rest of the men in the regiment were still shouting and cheering but in Ryden’s mind their voices faded to silence to allow him to concentrate.
He jumped forward and planted a foot on Pardo’s chest but the man just took one step back and regained his balance. Swinging a crushing blow in to Ryden’s right, the smith blocked it firmly. Without hesitating, Pardo swept the enormous axe around over his head and swung in again, this time from Ryden’s left.
Ryden thrust his sword up to deflect the blow but the axe glanced from the flat of the blade and skimmed down to sink into his left forearm. He screamed in pain and leapt back, glancing down to see thick dark blood welling up, its heat surprising him as it oozed over the skin of his arm.
He tried to readjust his grip but controlling his left hand was difficult and he guessed that the muscle was damaged. Holding the sword one-handed instead, he gritted his teeth and sprang back to attack again.
He was enraged now and without a thought for his own safety he ran at Pardo and punched him in the throat. As the man put a hand to his neck, Ryden swung his sword in towards the man’s ankles.
Although Pardo blocked the low swing, he hadn’t anticipated the boy’s next move. Trapping the axe blade to the ground, Ryden smashed his head into the shorter man’s nose, smiling grimly as he heard the sound of crunching cartilage.
Pardo blinked quickly, trying to restore his blurred vision, but the few seconds of blindness was long enough for Ryden to hook a foot behind his right ankle. Bracing his bloody left arm against the bearded man’s chest, Ryden gave an almighty shove and sent Pardo crashing to the ground, blood bubbling from his broken nose.
Ryden stayed tense for a second, then acknowledging the fight was over he allowed the sword to slip from his hand and fall to the floor. He clamped his right hand over the deep wound in his left arm to stem the bleeding and sank to his knees, panting. Melca rushed forward to tie a handkerchief around the wound and Ryden grimaced as he pulled it tight.
Pardo Mason slowly rose to his feet and wiped the blood from his nose. He paced towards Ryden, who looked up as the man’s shadow fell across him. Melca took a step back, keeping his eyes on the bearded warrior.
Pardo flexed the fingers on his right hand, causing the knuckles to click loudly. His eyes were locked onto Ryden’s. Ryden cast his eyes around the flattened grass, searching for his sword. It had fallen a couple of feet away, out of reach.
The crowd fell silent as they watched the duellists. Horsemaster Molokai took a step forward, ready to intervene if the need arose.
The axeman extended his right hand, palm open. Realising he meant no harm, Ryden reached out his own hand. Pardo gripped the boy’s wrist and Ryden echoed the gesture, remembering the warrior’s handshake that Allisad had taught him when they first met.
Suddenly, Pardo’s face split into a broad grin and he let out a deep laugh.
‘My, but you’ve got some balls, lad!’ He stepped back and pulled Ryden to his feet, then gestured to Ryden’s injury. ‘I’m sorry about that; perhaps you’ll allow me to stitch it up for you?’
Not knowing what to say, Ryden just smiled and nodded. He was still light-headed and felt he was probably better off on the floor than standing. Before he could think about sitting down, though, the rest of the squadron gathered round to congratulate him.
Allisad gathered up Ryden’s sword and passed it to him, hilt-first. ‘You’d better decide what you’re going to call this blade,’ he said with a smile, ‘because if you beat me this evening, I’ll want to know the name of the blade that felled me!’
‘Fine, I’ll come up with something,’ Ryden responded. ‘Although I think that outcome is pretty unlikely.’
He paused and looked down at the weapon for inspiration. As he turned it over in his hand, the sun glinted from the golden hilt. He smiled and returned his attention to Allisad.
‘Gilden. I will call her Gilden.’
Demus Lazarus lay face-down on a canvas camp-bed that stood four feet above the ground on wooden legs. He was stripped down to his waist and his skin glistened in the sunlight streaming through the open window flaps of his tent.
A beautiful girl, wearing nothing but a knee-length pleated white skirt, was rubbing oil into his back and kneading his knotted muscles. She was petite and her long brown hair fell past her shoulders to rest on her firm breasts.
Her twin sister, similarly attired, stood nearby with a large cloth fan that she was swaying rhythmically, sending a cool breeze rippling across his skin. He didn’t recall either of the girls’ names but this didn’t concern him because he couldn’t tell them apart anyway.
They were both seventeen and had been captured in Valihall two years ago by one of his officers. Since then he had taken them with him throughout the campaign; their innocence and their obedience pleased him and he made use of them whenever he had the opportunity.
He breathed in deeply, filling his nostrils with the scent of eucalyptus oil, and gazed around the room. The tent itself was extremely lavish; it had been a gift from the king when Lazarus was appointed general, five years ago. It measured twenty feet by fifteen feet and there was a small bed-chamber at the back, separated from the main space by a heavy curtain.
He raised an arm and beckoned to the girl with the fan. She lowered it and stepped forward, brushing her hair from her eyes as she did so. When she was close enough, Lazarus placed his hand on the inside of her knee and began to slide it upwards, enjoying the feel of her soft skin under his fingertips.
His thoughts were interrupted as Karna, his personal guard, stepped inside the tent and cleared his throat. ‘General, there is a messenger here with news from Jalapa.’
Cursing, Lazarus rolled over onto his side and dismissed the girls with a wave of his hand, then allowed his eyes to follow them as they collected the massage oils and returned to the bed-chamber in silence.
He swung his legs off the raised bed and stood, dabbing at his chest and arms with a towel as he strolled to the other side of the room. ‘Send him in,’ he ordered as he sat down in a broad chair decked with cushions.
Karna ducked out of sight and re-entered a moment later, holding the tent-flap up as he did so to allow the messenger to enter. Hambul was short and slight, with large eyes that made him look younger than his nineteen years. He was trembling and his brow was damp with sweat.
He stopped a few feet in front of the general, dropped to one knee and bowed his head. ‘Sir,’ he said, then bit his lower lip and looked up into the man’s face.
‘What news do you have for me?’ Lazarus intoned, the confidence and power in his voice serving only to make the young man in front of him even more nervous.
‘I have just returned from Jalapa, where I witnessed the Rejk army leaving the city in full force, heading west.’ Hambul paused for breath before continuing his rehearsed scout report.
‘There were about 250 horsemen and perhaps 3000 infantrymen. I was able to get close enough to hear some conversation and they were all talking about Halgorn. That must be where they are heading.’
His eyes scanned the general’s face for some reaction. Feeling he needed to justify his actions, he spoke again. ‘I have ridden back here almost without stopping. My horse nearly collapsed from exhaustion.’
The general’s face was expressionless and his eyes seemed to have clouded over. For a moment Hambul thought he was daydreaming; the distant look in his eyes gave the impression that he hadn’t heard a word the scout had said. But then he spoke.
‘Almost?’ His voice was clear and resonant. ’Nearly? Those are not the words of a warrior. You cannot almost be a hero. You cannot nearly win a battle. Your delays may cause us to lose this war, and what then?’
Hambul began to shake. ‘Please sir, I stopped only to relieve myself and to allow my horse to drink. I haven’t slept for three days!’
Lazarus continued, his voice as cold as ice. ‘I do not want to hear your excuses.’ He stood and picked up a small knife from a pedestal next to his chair. ‘Save them for the Author.’
Hambul’s eyes widened in fear. ‘Sir, please don’t kill me. My wife is expecting our first child any day now.’ He began to wail and shake his head but the general would not be deterred.
‘Your anecdotes mean nothing to me.’ He placed a hand on Hambul’s head. ’When you reach the Great Beyond, I’m sure the Author of All Things will be fascinated to hear all about how you almost lived to be a father.’
With that, he plunged the knife into the man’s left eye socket. Hambul let out a bloodcurdling scream, which stopped abruptly when his brain died.
Lazarus withdrew the knife and wiped it on the messenger’s tunic before pushing the corpse to the floor. He glanced up at Karna who was already moving towards him.
‘Get rid of that before it stains the rug.’
Karna nodded and lifted the corpse, slinging it easily over his broad shoulders. As he made his way to the tent-flap, the general called after him. ’Send Sergeant Butcher to me. We have much to discuss.
Bryce Butcher was having the time of his life. He was going from house to house on the main street of Poranthia, searching for survivors. When he found them, cowering in wardrobes or behind furniture, he took great pleasure in witnessing their final moments.
It was his firm belief that every kill he made in the name of Kappland brought him closer to a dukedom. After all, he was one of only twenty senior officers in the Kappish army and General Lazarus was pleased with his results.
He had led Hawk squadron since Allisad the Hunter had fled. Allisad the Traitor. The man had a formidable reputation as a fighter but now he was nothing more than a criminal on the run. And Bryce had been promoted to sergeant in his stead.
He battered down a door and heard a whimper from the back room. Stomping through, he found a young woman hiding beneath a kitchen table. He hauled her to her feet and leered at her, the movement in his bull-like face causing the tendons on his thick neck to stand out.
He remained motionless for a few seconds whilst she pleaded with him, then rammed a dagger into the small of her back and twisted it. When her body went limp, he withdrew the dagger and sheathed it.
Noticing the wedding band on her finger, he grabbed it and wrenched it off, snapping the dead finger as he did so. Tucking the ring into a pouch on his belt, he dropped her to the floor and strode back out to the main street.
As he emerged into the daylight, a Kapp soldier came running towards him. ‘The general needs to see you,’ he panted. ‘Says it’s urgent.’
‘Just when I was getting started,’ Bryce grumbled, and paced off in the direction of the camp.