The sergeant of Hawk squadron was sweating when he reached the general’s tent. He was unfit and overweight despite the amount of marching he had done since he joined the army and the climate here didn’t help; the further south they travelled, the hotter it became and to Bryce it had become almost intolerable.
Karna, the tall black guard, stood outside the tent with his arms folded. Bryce nodded gruffly to him and the man disappeared inside, reappearing immediately to usher him into the refreshing shade of the red canvas pavilion.
As he entered he glimpsed a naked female ankle disappearing behind a curtain but said nothing. That’s the benefit of being the general, he mused.
Lazarus beckoned him over to a folding chair that had been set up opposite his own seat. The chair creaked as Bryce sat down.
‘Sergeant Butcher. How goes it?’
’They’re not putting up much of a fight, sir. We’re all over ‘em.’
The general smiled. His newest officer was the no-nonsense sort; not particularly intelligent but he always got straight to the point. Lazarus liked that.
‘Excellent,’ he replied, ’because I have a new job for you and your men. In a little over a week we will arrive at Halgorn; one of the most heavily-fortified cities in Masnia. Quite simply, we do not have enough men to take the walls.
‘I have arranged for a further ten thousand men to be ready to fight however they may need some... encouragement to join us.’ Bryce frowned, uncomprehending. Lazarus continued. ’Let’s just say they weren’t exactly eager to volunteer.
‘I need you and your men to return to Rektor immediately to escort our reinforcements to Halgorn. There will be a certain amount of discipline required to ensure they arrive ready for battle. Use whatever methods you deem necessary to maintain that discipline.’
‘Why us, sir? We’re your strongest squadron. Can’t Falcon or Raven go on this babysitting mission?’
There was a silence. It seemed to Bryce that the temperature in the room dropped several degrees. The general’s eyes glazed over and when he spoke again, his voice was low and menacing.
‘Do you disapprove of the important task I have given you?’
‘N-no sir. Just curious.’
After a short pause, Lazarus’s face broke into a smile. ‘Good. I’m glad to see you are thinking strategically. To satisfy your curiosity, I have selected Hawk because I need to know that the new troops will be kept in check. Do you understand?’
‘You want us to go because we won’t take any crap?’
‘Quite. Very eloquently put. I will arrange for you to take our fastest horses to Rektor and from there you will need to lead the men on foot. You will meet me at the gates of Halgorn in ten days.’
‘If you are not there at dawn on the tenth day, there will be consequences.’
Bryce nodded, knowing full well what those consequences would be.
‘Thank you. I will see your loyalty is rewarded.’
Business was slow at the Lawrum Inn. It had been ever since the troops went to war almost three years ago. So when a dusty stranger arrived with a scrawny child Gurta didn’t turn them away, even though his instincts told him they were either destitute or criminal.
Instead he ushered them through the narrow hall leading from the front door to the main bar-room and guided them across the sawdust-covered floor to a table in the corner. Tanka was polishing tables nearby and he glanced up when the newcomers arrived.
‘We would like as much food and drink as we can buy for three ru, please,’ Balenor asked. He beamed at John, who he knew must be as ravenous as he was.
Gurta nodded and walked off to the kitchen. When he had gone, Balenor scanned the room. There were few windows, so the room was dingy and relied upon the fireplace and several oil-lamps dotted around the place for light. However it was also warm and having been on the streets for the last two nights it seemed extremely cosy and welcoming.
The ceiling was low and discoloured and the walls were hung with a selection of framed paintings, none of which seemed particularly good to the old man. He drummed his fingers on the table in front of him, the sound reverberating around the otherwise silent room.
Fortunately he didn’t have to wait long before Gurta returned to the table with a tray of bread and cheese, two chicken legs, several boiled potatoes and a bowl of fruit. It wasn’t the most exotic meal but to someone who’d eaten next to nothing for two days it was heavenly.
Both of the visitors pounced on the food. Gurta fetched them two glasses of ale, watering one of them down for the boy, then returned and sat down opposite them.
‘So what’s your story?’ he asked.
Balenor looked up from a mouthful of chicken and wiped his hand across his mouth. ‘We’ve come from Khaviz to visit family.’ A morsel of chicken flew from his mouth as he spoke and landed on the table in front of Gurta.
‘Is that so? Your family ain’t very accommodating then if you ask me. You’re eating as though you’ve never seen food before and you look like you’ve been wrestling with a hawthorn bush!’ He paused for a response but Balenor just shrugged and reached for a hunk of bread.
‘Look, if you’re a deserter or an outlaw or something, it makes no odds to me. I don’t judge and I don’t tell. We don’t get the law round here much and you wouldn’t be the first fugitive to lay low here. But I like to know who I’m dealing with.’
‘We’re not criminals. We came to visit the boy’s uncle and aunt but there are strangers in their house so we don’t know what’s happened to them,’ Balenor improvised.
‘So why don’t you go home?’
‘We can’t go home,’ John chipped in, ‘because the people there think we’re witches!’
Balenor clapped a hand to his cheek and kept it there. Gurta’s eyes flicked from John to Balenor and back to John again. ‘Why would they think that?’ he asked carefully, a hint of nervousness in his voice.
‘We found a magic item from the days of the Ancients,’ Balenor replied. ‘We used it and some of the local people thought it was witchcraft. We’re no more witches than you are; we’re just normal people who were too curious for our own good.’
’The Ancients ‘ad some strange ways, all right. This tavern’s built on top of one of their houses, deep below the earth. I went down there a couple of times, years ago, but it’s a bit too creepy for my liking.’
Balenor’s eyes lit up. ‘You mean one of their dwellings is just a few yards below our feet? That’s incredible! I don’t mean to intrude but is there any chance we could go down there and look around?’
Gurta hesitated, unsure of the stranger’s intentions, but seeing no harm in it he nodded. ‘You’re right; you are too curious for your own good.’
Balenor and John finished eating and paid for the meal, then Gurta led them down a broad set of stairs to an enormous cellar. This cavernous room was the length and width of the entire building, and at regular intervals there were heavy brick pillars wider than tree-trunks, evidently supporting the rafters and boards of the room above.
The floor comprised mainly of stone slabs however an area measuring about thirty feet by forty feet, situated in one corner of the immense cellar, was floored with wooden boards and planks. Gurta explained how that area had once been the attic of the building below.
By now, Balenor could barely contain his excitement. Soon he would be standing in a room previously inhabited by people that died more than four centuries ago. John was less enthusiastic. The last time he was in a cellar he’d found himself running away from witch-hunters, so the prospect of being underground again wasn’t particularly appealing.
The vast cellar was empty other than a few barrels in one corner. It was cool and unlike Balenor’s cellar back in Khaviz, this room was dry and had no mould, mildew, rats or roaches. There was no life here other than the three people who had just entered the room.
Gurta walked to the far side of the open space, over the wooden floorboards, to a small trapdoor. Beckoning to the others, he heaved open the dry hatch to reveal a ladder below, descending into darkness.
‘How much deeper do we have to go?’ John asked. ‘We’ll reach the centre of the earth if we keep going!’
‘Not far,’ Gurta replied, then gestured for Balenor to descend first. The old man placed his candle-holder next to the hatch and stepped on to the ladder, gingerly testing each rung and he went. Just before his head disappeared from sight he picked up the candle and lifted it down with him. John followed closely afterwards and Gurta came last of all.
They spread out at the foot of the ladder and found themselves on a landing at the top of an ancient flight of stairs. There were several doors leading off to different rooms, still reasonably well-preserved by the dryness of the air around them.
Balenor reached out a hand and opened one of the doors, holding his candle inside the room to investigate. There was a bed in one corner and a large wardrobe opposite, but soil and tree-roots had found their way into the room through a large hole that had once been a window, leaving the floor covered in earth.
‘The other bedrooms are in the same state,’ Gurta explained, ‘but the rooms downstairs are pretty much intact.’
He carefully led them down the stairs, offering a warning when he reached a step that had rotted through. When they got to the bottom they stepped out into an open room, however their candles were starting to burn down and the light was very weak.
Gurta moved around the room lighting larger candles that had been placed at regular intervals around the walls at some point in the recent past. Once he had done so, Balenor stood speechless in the centre of the room, taking in his surroundings. Every time he began to think that the place was too alien to comprehend, he’d see something else that was all too familiar.
The floor was covered with a thick, soft material. Many people Balenor knew had rugs in their homes, but this stretched from wall to wall so that not an inch of floor could be seen. The ceiling was fairly ordinary but there were several flower-shaped objects hanging from it. On closer inspection, the centre of the shapes resembled the glass globe that Balenor had experimented with back in Khaviz; the one that had glowed when connected to the turbine.
Realising his discovery, he explained to Gurta in an animated fashion that this would have generated light in the room even when it was dark outside.
‘This could be a breakthrough in science!’ he gushed. ‘Will you allow me to try to create the magic of the Ancients here?’
Seeing the landlord’s panic-stricken face, he calmed himself before continuing. ‘Look, it isn’t really magic; it is simply a process of converting natural energy into artificial energy. You know how you can create heat by moving something very quickly? Like when you rub your hands together fast?’ Gurta nodded and said nothing.
‘Well if you use movement to heat up a thin piece of metal then the metal will glow, in the same way a blacksmith’s iron glows when it’s removed from a forge. So all we need to do is use wind power to create movement, which in turn creates heat. If we then channel that heat through the wire inside this glass ball, it will glow and light up the room.’
‘Sounds pretty complicated.’ Gurta hesitated, but seeing the eagerness in the older man’s eyes he conceded. ‘Fine. But I don’t want anyone else to know what you’re up to. I don’t want to be branded a witch just because you’re tryin’ to make ‘istory.’
‘Of course. You won’t regret it! Besides, history’s already been made. It’s the future that I want to build.’
‘Whatever. If the two of you want to stay here it’ll cost three rathian per day for food and lodging.’
‘Fifteen ru?’ Balenor was incredulous. ‘I’m sorry, but we just don’t have that kind of money. If truth be told, we don’t have any money. But we would be happy to sleep down here instead of taking up one of your rooms.’ Gurta looked unimpressed but Balenor continued.
‘If you’ll be kind enough to put us up and feed us then I promise you, once we harness this lektrizdi you’ll be the richest bar-owner in all of Rektor. Everyone will want to see this for themselves. Just imagine being the first place to have light without flame, music without musicians, fans that operate on their own... the possibilities are endless!’
‘Just don’t get caught, that’s all.’ Gurta replied. ’It’s my reputation on the line. I’ve lived ‘ere all my life and I don’t fancy being chased from my home by a lynch mob. You understand?’
‘I understand Gurta. Thank you!’ Balenor’s eyes shone with excitement.
John was less enthused and he looked around the room in silence, trying to familiarise himself with his new surroundings. It’ll be a long time before I can call this place home.
A few hours after noon, the Rejk cavalry crested a large hill sparsely covered with yellowed grass. As the first riders reached the peak, an emphatic cry went up.
And so it was. From speaking with the other soldiers, Ryden had gathered that very few of them had ever left Jalapa before, let alone travelled as far as Halgorn, so when the city came into sight it was met with wonder.
Ryden guided Rusty up to the brow of the hill and looked out. In front of him the ground sloped steeply downwards into a valley, where a narrow yet fast-moving stream wound through a fringe of bracken. Beyond it, the ground rose upwards again for several hundred yards before levelling out to form a wide plateau.
Atop the plateau, looming high enough to cast shadows across the entire valley, stood an immense wall. There were several towers at intervals along the wall, the tallest of which Ryden estimated to be about fifty feet high. Unlike the fortifications of Jalapa, these were built solely from one type of stone, which was a dark charcoal grey colour and looked both beautiful and formidable.
Despite the impressiveness of the structure in front of them, Ryden could see even from where he sat two thousand yards away that it was in a severe state of disrepair. Only one of the seven visible towers was intact and stones had fallen all around the base of the buttresses, leaving a clumsy zigzag along the top of the wall where bricks were missing.
Molokai interrupted the awed silence by giving the order to march. As one, the unit exercised their new-found discipline and marched down the hill. The horses had no difficulty in crossing the shallow river but having travelled for several hours to get here they slowed on the ascent towards the ebony fortress.
Rusty’s breathing began to come more quickly and Ryden suddenly understood why this was said to be the most impregnable city in all of Masnia. Not just because of the impressive walls but also the strategic location. Any army hoping to lay siege would have to scale the steep slope whilst their foes rained down showers of arrows on them. Even those that did reach the top on foot would be exhausted from the climb before they could attempt to take the walls.
He reached the summit and drew Rusty to a halt, then the broad wooden gates swung open and the riders marched in.
Balenor stood in the small courtyard behind the Lawrum Inn, staring at the slate roof. A steady drizzle was falling and the tiles shone in the cold light that was forcing its way through the heavy grey clouds above.
He scratched his head and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. He had a dilemma. In order to create the lektrizdi he had promised to Gurta – on which his livelihood now depended – he needed to generate enough power to operate all the devices in the underground chamber.
However, the turbine he’d built back in Khaviz had barely provided enough power for one globe, let alone several globes with a whole range of other devices in addition. In order to create more power he would need to build a much larger turbine, but this would be far too conspicuous in a city like Rektor. More importantly, the power supply would be inconsistent and would fluctuate dependant on wind patterns.
He cursed quietly. Have I taken on too much? The opportunity to earn food and shelter had seemed like a lifeline but now he felt he had volunteered for an impossible task. He shivered.
The storm was getting worse and Balenor’s ears filled with a great hissing as the rain peppered the surface of the river running alongside the old alehouse. He gazed vacantly at a swollen horse-chestnut in the branches above, contemplating the challenge he was faced with.
And then it hit him. So he picked up the fallen conker and threw it into the water, where it drifted past the tavern and on downstream until it was out of sight.
And then an idea hit him. The river was constantly moving. Unlike the wind turbine he had created, which depended on air pressure to operate effectively, a water turbine would move indefinitely with the flow of the stream. The miller in his hometown of Khaviz used a water-wheel to process flour and Balenor wondered whether he could build a similar device to generate lektrizdi.
His thin cotton shirt had become translucent in the downpour and now clung to him like a drunken aunt. Without further ado he raced back inside the shelter of the inn and began to draw up his plans.
A huge cheer went up as the five mounted squadrons of the Rejk army rode through the gates at Halgorn. The rest of the army was travelling on foot and wouldn’t arrive for a few days, however the defenders were still exuberant and rushed to greet the newcomers with handshakes and excited welcomes.
The riders quickly dismounted and walked their horses to a makeshift stable that had been hastily constructed for the three hundred horses. They then headed to the city barracks, where a soldier allocated rooms to all of them, explaining as he did so that due to the number of soldiers travelling from Jalapa they would have to sleep four to a room.
Ryden and Melca were to be sharing with Derry and Oak, although they had already made up their minds to sneak out that night to continue their journey to Rektor. Leaving their Jalapan friends to unpack, they walked out of the barracks and headed towards the city walls.
As they approached they could see that work was underway to rebuild and restore the walls as well as possible. All the townsfolk seemed to be helping and Ryden watched with interest as the huge obsidian blocks were hoisted up to the top of the walls by ropes, where they were fixed into place using a cement made from water, clay, sand and other minerals.
It was now mid-afternoon and the sun was lower in the sky, meaning that most of the city seemed to be overshadowed by the enormous walls and towers. As they passed the south gate from which they had entered the city, Melca turned to Ryden with a concerned expression on his face.
‘Ry? How are we going to leave tonight if the gates are guarded? I don’t think they’ll let us out in case we’re running away.’
Ryden paused for a moment, considering the question. ‘There are bound to be other exits. Let’s keep walking and see which one would be best to take.’
They continued around the circumference of the city, looking for openings but finding none. There was a north-west gate, however this was fortified as it faced directly towards Kappland. After half an hour they came to an immense gate at the north of the city but this was also heavily guarded as it was considered to be the most likely point of attack for any army coming from Poranthia.
Ryden began to worry. What if we’re trapped in this city? He knew that without Aranin’s help, the Rejk army had very little hope of defeating the Kapps. He was now over three-quarters of the way round the city and so far all of the exits he’d seen looked impossible to use. Then Melca clapped a hand on his arm and pointed. ‘What about that?’
Ryden followed his gaze and saw what had got his friend excited. A section of the stone had crumbled to such a degree that in some places the wall was non-existent and it was possible to walk straight out of the city.
They walked right up to the wall for a closer look and saw that someone had stacked a large number of the fallen bricks in several neat piles both inside and outside the boundary. Clearly someone intended to rebuild the wall but currently there was no one in sight.
He turned and nodded at Melca. ‘I think this is it. We’ll continue round to the south gate, but if we don’t see anything more promising then this will be our exit tonight.’
They completed their stroll at a leisurely pace, still searching for a better option but finding nothing. As the south gate came into sight once more, Derry spotted them from where he stood in the entrance courtyard and began to run towards them.
As he came within fifty yards he began shouting at Ryden. ‘Hurry up Ry, or you’ll have to forfeit!’
Baffled, Ryden waited for his friend to reach them then asked him to explain.
‘The fight,’ Derry gasped between breaths, ‘the tournament final with Allisad. It’s due to start in five minutes. If you don’t show up then you’ll have to forfeit!’
Ryden’s eyes widened as recognition struck. He’d completely forgotten about the duel and had left his sword in the barracks. He broke into a run and Melca watched until he was out of sight, then walked with Derry back to the training ground where the match was due to take place.
‘I’m glad I found you both,’ Derry explained as they walked, ‘I’ve taken a lot of bets for Ryden and I don’t want to have to give all that money back,’ he confided to Melca, who was less than impressed.
The baker was secretly hoping his friend wouldn’t return in time. He’d seen Allisad fight and knew he would be extremely difficult to beat. He was also concerned about Ryden getting injured, particularly if it meant they would be unable to leave the city tonight.
Unfortunately Ryden came jogging into sight two minutes later with his sword hanging by his side. He arrived, panting, next to Allisad. The Kapp clapped a hand on his shoulder. ‘Glad you could make it, Ry. Were you going through some last minute routines with the mighty Gilden?’
Ryden shook his head. ‘No, just exploring the city.’
Allisad opened his mouth to speak again but as he did so the crowd in front of them parted to reveal Molokai, who paced through the ranks and stopped a few feet in front of the two men. The troops fell silent, waiting for their commander’s introduction to the long-awaited tournament final.
‘Both of these fine warriors have fought five battles so far,’ the horsemaster’s voice rang out, his deep voice raising hairs on the back of Melca’s neck. ‘Both of them have racked up five victories. Their swordsmanship is a joy to watch and a terror to face.’
He swept his eyes over the expectant crowd and continued. ’Lieutenant Brown has both strength and experience, whereas Private Smith is the most confident and agile sixteen year old I have ever seen in battle.
’This promises to be a fascinating contest. In one week, you will fight alongside these men. Watch them and learn from them, because next week there will be no mercy. No glamorous trophies. Nothing but victory or defeat; survival or death.
’However, the rewards for winning this war will by far exceed the two guineas I have promised to today’s victor. The reward for winning this war will be the opportunity to continue living in a free Rejkland; one to which you will all be able to stake a claim. By winning this war we will assure the safety of our children, rather than condemning them to live in chains under the dictatorship of a bloodthirsty empire.
‘Enjoy today and offer your support to these men, for they will be supporting you throughout the approaching campaign. For Rejkland!’
A rousing cheer was swept up and echoed from the towering walls. ‘Rejkland! Rejkland! Rejkland!’ After several seconds, the Horsemaster General clapped his large hands twice and the crowd quietened once more. Melca bit his lip and swallowed as Allisad and Ryden drew their swords.
Time slowed as the two swordsmen, eyes narrowed and jaws clenched, began to circle.