The seventeen members of Hawk squadron rode in ranks of four, with Sergeant Bryce Butcher at their head. Paldar was in the back row and trailed a little way behind, using one hand to control his horse whilst the other was tucked inside his shirt, supporting his wounded shoulder.
The men were arguing, laughing and making crude jokes as they rode, paying no heed to the skinny lad at the back. This suited Paldar just fine; he had nothing in common with them and nothing to say to them. At least when they were ignoring him they weren’t bullying or tormenting him.
In two days they would be at Rektor. When they arrived, Paldar intended to run away at the earliest opportunity. Although he was risking the death sentence in doing so, he was putting his life on the line every day he stayed with the army anyway.
He would seek out his uncle. The man was a powerful figure in Rektor and would hopefully be able to protect him and keep him hidden from the world. He would wait until the war was over and all the deserters had been forgotten about, then choose a different name and ease himself back into society.
He had it all planned out. In two days he would be on the run however he wasn’t alarmed by the prospect. In fact the more he thought about it, the more excited he became.
‘Hurry up, Runt!’ The sergeant screamed at him from the front of the column. ‘If you don’t get a move on I’m gonna cut your nose off and ram it down your throat!’
The rest of the men laughed malevolently. Paldar said nothing; this was typical of the treatment he received from the other men in the unit. In his mind he drew his knife and threw it into the sergeant’s back. He imagined fighting the entire squadron and beating them from their horses before galloping off into the distance.
A private smile appeared on his face, then flickered and disappeared again when reality reasserted itself.
Not wanting to cause himself any problems, he remained calm and spurred his horse on again, praying that the journey would be over quickly.
Ryden was in pain. He already had a split lip and a swollen eye, both delivered by the hilt of his opponent’s sword after he had left himself open to Allisad’s powerful punch. He also had a cut on the back of his left leg where he had been too slow to block a low slashing cut.
It had been a fairly one-sided battle so far. He had been on the defensive from the start of the duel and had been unable to land a single blow of his own. He had practised with the Kapp on several occasions previously but felt that only now was the man fighting to his full potential.
Ryden cursed as a thundering blow crashed into his hastily-raised sword, sending a judder through his entire arm. He tried to land a left-handed uppercut but Allisad leaned back and avoided the attempt with ease, before slamming his own fist into the smith’s side, knocking the wind from him.
Staggering back, Ryden gasped for air whilst Allisad swept forward. The older man swung four times, each attempt placed perfectly to strike at his weak spots. Ryden batted them all away but by the narrowest of margins.
After the fourth, he succeeded in grabbing Allisad’s sword-wrist in his left hand and spun round, elbowing him in the back of the neck. He heard a satisfying crack and Allisad broke away quickly, cradling the base of his skull.
Ryden took advantage of the opening and leapt in the air, bringing Gilden down with full force towards the man’s shoulder. Allisad had recovered quickly though and blocked the oncoming blade, parrying it and swinging again.
With Allisad back on the offensive, Ryden had no choice but to absorb several more blows as he sought to find some advantage. Realising he was almost beaten, he kicked out and dislodged his opponent’s kneecap, causing the man to cry out.
For a moment Ryden felt guilty for hurting him but the feeling soon passed when Allisad struck back, trapping Ryden’s sword and head-butting him. Coloured stars danced in front of the smith’s vision but he fought through it and charged in again, this time consumed by adrenalin and survival instinct.
He lunged as he ran but Allisad read the move well. In one fluid motion the Kapp parried the blade, stepped to one side and raised his ankle just enough to catch Ryden’s back leg and send him sprawling face-first onto the dry mud.
Ryden tried to leap to his feet before it dawned on him that the contest was over. Rolling to his back, he released his grip on Gilden and raised his hands to his face. His head was still spinning so he lay motionless for several seconds, listening to the applause.
A couple of men came over to console him and reassure him that he had fought well. One of them pressed a water-bottle into his hand. Pulling the cork out with his teeth, he poured half the contents over his face to wash away the dust, then sat up and downed the rest of the cool liquid.
As his head cleared he saw Allisad standing in the centre of the ring, his arms raised above his head in celebration.
Molokai stepped forward and reached out a hand to Ryden, who took it slowly. The horsemaster hauled Ryden to his feet and placed an enormous hand on his shoulder, smiling broadly. ‘Well fought,’ he said in an undertone, then turned to congratulate Allisad.
‘Lieutenant Brown. You are victorious!’ A roar went up. Molokai shook his hand firmly and then held up two large gold coins for all to see.
‘As promised, two guineas for winning the tournament.’ He pressed the coins into Allisad’s palm. ‘Spend it wisely.’
He turned to face the throng of men who had gathered to watch the contest. ’As for the rest of my horsemen, I will give a guinea to each and every one of you that is still standing when the Kappish army is defeated.
A ripple of disbelief swept through the crowd. Derry nudged Melca gently. ‘As if we needed more motivation to stay alive, eh?’ he chuckled.
‘Now get some rest.’ Molokai continued. ‘Tomorrow we will start training in earnest. I want you all here in this courtyard at dawn, fed and ready to work.’ With that he turned and strode away, leaving a clamour of animated conversation in his wake.
An hour before sunset, the men of Claw troop commandeered a nearby tavern and began to celebrate their arrival in Halgorn. Despite Molokai’s suggestion of an early night, he disobeyed his own order by joining them in the bar later that evening.
Derry was bombarded with claims for money wagered and won in the competition and Allisad was kept equally busy with congratulatory remarks and questions about his display of swordsmanship.
Ryden and Melca soon tired of the boisterous revelry and headed back to the barracks. When they returned they sorted out what they would need for the journey ahead, moving their belongings slowly to avoid making any unnecessary noise.
Leaving behind everything but the bare essentials, they crept out of their room with the intention of going directly to the stables and then out to the breach in the city wall. As they reached the main entrance hall, however, they came face to face with Molokai. He was clearly drunk and he now filled the arched doorway, swaying violently.
‘Where are you three going?’ he demanded, pointing a shaky finger somewhere above Ryden’s head. ‘You have to be awake in four hours!’
Ryden didn’t know exactly what time it was, but he had a fair idea that dawn was still eight or nine hours away. Rather than contest the point, however, he simply muttered something about attending to the horses.
Molokai’s face broke into a broad smile and he fell against the cold stone doorframe. ‘That’s didedication for you,’ he boomed, pushing himself off the wall towards the far corridor. ‘Horsies need to be loved.’
He stumbled off into the darkness and moments after he disappeared from sight a loud crash echoed back up the corridor, causing Ryden and Melca to chuckle.
‘Looks like leaving here won’t be so difficult after all!’ Melca joked. ‘Let’s hope the nightwatch were in the alehouse tonight as well!’
When they left the barracks they were surprised to see a number of people still walking through the streets, however everyone was moving quickly and no one gave the newcomers a second glance.
On reaching the makeshift stables Ryden peered through a knot-hole in the wood, searching for movement, but he could see nothing. Being careful to make as little noise as possible, he raised the heavy iron latch that rested across the centre of the broad doors and swung them open.
As the stable was a new structure, the hinges moved smoothly and without any hint of creaking. Relieved, Ryden took one last glance around the yard and stepped inside, closely followed by Melca.
Although the sun had set, the moon was bright and the sky outside was still light enough to see by. Inside the stables, however, it was almost pitch black so Ryden left the doors open to allow some of the cold light to seep in. By the pale moonlight, he could just make out the first few stalls.
The first two horses were asleep, but watching knowingly from the third stall stood Dave, his baleful eyes locked on the intruders.
‘That horse gives me the creeps,’ Melca muttered, then shuddered as he thought he saw a half-smile appear on Dave’s lips. ‘Let’s just get ours and go.’
They felt their way forward until they were about halfway down the aisle and then stopped. Their eyes had adjusted slightly to the darkness but it still took several minutes before they established where Storm and Rusty were. Fortunately they had left the saddles in the stalls and having spent the best part of two weeks sat in them they were able to recognise them by touch alone, every nick and blemish in the surface of the leather familiar to them.
After blindly saddling their steeds, they silently led the confused horses out of the stalls and down the long aisle towards the open doors ahead. Although the moonlight had been useful thus far, Ryden worried that it would make them more conspicuous to the night guards as they tried to escape the city.
As they passed Dave he snorted loudly, causing them both to turn and look. Suddenly a shadow fell across his long face. Swinging back in panic towards the doors, they saw Allisad in front of them, grinning from ear to ear.
‘Howdy boys!’ he said, making no effort to mute his voice. ‘I’m sorry I’m late; I lost track of time. Hope you weren’t waiting too long.’ Ryden and Melca glanced at each other, saying nothing.
‘I’ll just get Dave ready and then we’ll go.’ He stepped forward, then stumbled and fell hard on the straw-covered floor. Pulling himself to his feet, he gave a lopsided smile and climbed over the gate into Dave’s stall.
‘Hey, Allisad?’ Ryden whispered, but was interrupted by the Kapp.
‘It’s Alli. ALLI! Allisad sounds like a horse’s name.’
‘Unlike Dave,’ Melca blurted before he could stop himself. Ryden gave him a scowl and continued.
‘Fine; Alli then. How much have you drunk? You’re not going to be able to ride like this. You can’t even stand up properly!’
‘Mmmm...’ came the reply. ‘Honestly officer, I’ve only had a couple of ales.’ He beamed and began fumbling with Dave’s saddle-straps.
‘What are we going to do?’ Melca hissed to Ryden. ‘Can’t we just go now and leave him here?’
‘I don’t think so,’ Ryden replied in an undertone. ‘If we don’t wait for him then he’ll raise the alarm and we’ll be arrested for deserting. We’ll have to just keep him as quiet as possible whilst we travel to the breach.’
Melca begrudgingly agreed and opened the gate for Allisad, who was still struggling with the saddle. Dave stood there patiently, rolling his eyes in mockery of his master’s condition.
Once he was ready, the three of them left the stables and led their horses towards the centre of town. They daren’t walk round the outside of the buildings because of the perimeter guards, although going through the main street was almost as risky.
Ryden led the way, his mind working overtime to think of a way to explain himself if they were stopped. What excuse could we possibly have for walking our horses out in the middle of the night? He couldn’t think of a single valid reason.
Fortunately the streets were quieter now and after a couple of minutes they turned down a cutaway that Ryden knew would lead them back out to the city walls.
‘This is exciting, isn’t it?’ Allisad called out loudly. ‘Trying to escape without being seen!’
‘Shut up!’ Melca exclaimed in the loudest whisper he could manage.
The end of the alleyway opened out into a large park overlooked by several tall buildings. One of the buildings had lanterns burning in every room and Ryden realised with a degree of concern that this was the guardhouse. Hissing a warning to the other two, they began to creep across the grass as stealthily as they could.
A group of revellers came into sight, stumbling along the cobbled street behind them. Within minutes, two guards emerged from the building and approached them, intending to have harsh words with them. Ryden cursed and began walking faster. Melca picked up on this and he too increased his pace but Allisad was oblivious.
‘Hang on, slow down!’ he cried.
The guards looked up and caught sight of the three horses being led across the green.
‘Hey!’ one of them shouted. Ryden kept his head down and carried on walking. Melca panicked and began to run.
The guard blew his whistle and suddenly three more officers emerged from the guardhouse and began running towards them. Seeing no alternative, Ryden vaulted into his saddle and called to Melca and Allisad to do the same. Kicking Rusty into a gallop, he sped across the park towards the wall, now less than two hundred yards away.
The whistle had caught the attention of the guards at the east gate and seeing where the riders were heading, they rushed towards the gap in the wall. One of them began to string a bow.
Ryden risked a glance over his shoulder and saw the other two riding behind him. Allisad looking surprisingly agile considering the state he was in but Melca was lagging further behind, his inexperience noticeable.
It was clear that the guards chasing from the guardhouse would struggle gain any ground whilst they were on foot, however the men running along in front of the wall were almost at the breach already.
As Ryden drew closer his breath caught in his throat. The wall had been partly repaired. Where the breach had offered a clear exit that afternoon, there were now three rows of heavy stone bricks laid and the wall stood four feet from the ground.
He was less than fifty yards away and this was his only chance of escape. With no time to reason he screamed to his friends, ‘We’ll have to jump it!’
No sooner had he finished speaking than the task was upon him. Voicing as much encouragement as he could muster, he patted Rusty’s neck and clung on for dear life. He didn’t know how to instruct a horse to jump but Rusty wasn’t stupid and didn’t need telling. When he was six feet from the wall he pushed himself upwards, tucked his legs underneath him and cleared the obstacle. Landing gracefully, he continued his gallop into the dark beyond.
Ryden breathed a sigh of relief and turned to look over his shoulder, worried for his friends. The first guard from the east gate arrived at the breach moments before Allisad, but as Dave leapt into the air his front hoof caught the officer’s jaw and flung him backwards, unconscious. Dave cleared the wall and rode towards Rusty.
Melca was terrified. He’d only learnt to ride two weeks ago and now here he was galloping towards a wall with no idea how to jump it. At a loss he leant forward, wrapped his arms around Storm’s neck and closed his eyes.
He felt the power of the animal’s muscles as they bunched up beneath him. He felt her push herself upwards and carry him gracefully over the wall. He felt the judder as she landed, knees bending to absorb the impact. And then she ran on into the night, heedless of the angry shouts echoing behind her.
The morning sun rose slowly over the Lawrum Inn, melting away the last of yesterday’s storm clouds. Smoke began to issue from the broad chimney, indicating that the inhabitants had risen and were preparing for the new day.
John, who had slept on a straw mattress in the cellar, woke up shivering. He glanced over to the corner where his grandfather sat and saw him slumped over a large wooden contraption, snoring loudly. The last few candles on the small yerti table were almost out and the flickering flames cast enormous restless shadows across the cold stone walls.
He smiled. The alchemist had been up half the night, feverishly sawing and nailing pieces of wood together. He knew this because he had woken up on a couple of occasions and each time he did so, his grandfather had grinned at him and promised to be finished soon.
He stood up and stretched, then leaving the old man to sleep he crept up the narrow steps to the main reception hall. Gurta was building a large fire in the grate whilst Tanka was polishing tables and humming loudly.
John made his way over to the fire and pulled a chair up in front of it. He sat down and rubbed his hands and arms, trying to get the blood flowing again.
Noticing the movement, Gurta gave him a wide grin and ruffled his hair. ‘Cold in the cellar, ain’t it?’ he chuckled. ’How about some nice ‘ot porridge?’
John nodded gratefully and the burly landlord grinned and disappeared into the kitchen. As he did so, Balenor emerged from the back room, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
‘Daylight already?’ he observed. ‘I must’ve lost track of time. Have you been up long?’ he asked the boy. John shook his head.
‘Ah well, not to worry. We’ll have some breakfast and then we have to get to work.’ As he spoke, Gurta reappeared with a pot of oats and hung them over the fire.
‘I could use the kitchen,’ the landlord commented, gesturing towards the porridge, ‘but it ain’t worth lighting another fire when there’s only four of us, eh?’ He picked up the poker from the mantel and began to stoke the fire. ‘So what’s this work you gotta do then?’
‘Funny you should say that,’ Balenor paused, choosing his words carefully. ‘How would you feel about losing a brick or two from the south wall?’
It wasn’t long before Balenor had hauled his new ‘waterwheel’ up the stairs from the cellar and presented it to Gurta.
‘Here’s the plan,’ he explained. ’We mount this on the side of the tavern, positioned in such a way that the flow of the river will keep it moving constantly. The movement creates something called ‘mechanical energy’.
The central axle will extend through the side wall into the store-room, where we merely convert the mechanical energy into ‘lektrik energy’ and use it to power the artefacts. Nothing could be simpler.’
Gurta stared blankly at the bizarre object in front of him. It looked as though Balenor had built an enormous flower out of wood and now he wanted to knock through the wall to plant it.
‘All right, Bally-nor, well you’ve obviously put a lot of effort into it. But I don’t want a gaping hole in the side of my pub, no matter what you think this wheel is going to do.’
‘Don’t worry, we’ll cover it all up afterwards. You won’t be exposed to the elements once I’ve finished, I promise you.’
Unconvinced, Gurta eventually shrugged and uttered an agreement. No sooner were the words past his lips than the old man wrung his hand and began babbling thanks. He skipped out of the room with his device, closely followed by a bemused John.
It took most of the afternoon before he finally broke through the thick wall with a stone-pick, but his measurements were accurate and he immediately ran outside and leapt into the river to insert the wheel into the crack in the wall. Once this was done he hurried inside again, leaving a steady trickle of water on the floor behind him.
John continued to watch silently as his eccentric grandfather began fussing with thin metal wires and other objects that he’d retrieved from one of his travel-bags.
Balenor lifted the edge of a floorboard and dropped a length of wire down to the room below. Rushing headlong down the stairs, he did the same on the next floor, sending the length of wire down the trapdoor and into the house of the Ancients below him.
When he reached the main living area of the centuries-old tavern, he retrieved his light globe from his bag and carefully touched the two wires to the metal root. Suddenly the underground hall was filled with brilliant light, so dazzling that it hurt his eyes to look upon it.
Then as quickly as it began, the light went out with a loud popping sound.
‘What happened?’ John exclaimed, just as fascinated as he had been back in Khaviz with the wind turbine.
‘The waterwheel is producing too much power for one globe,’ Balenor explained. ‘It must have overloaded the metal core.’
The two of them sat motionless for a moment, allowing their eyes to readjust to the room which was now only lit by a couple of small candles once more.
Once his sight was restored, Balenor began exploring the room for something, although John had no idea what. Finally he came upon a grey box mounted on the wall. Pulling open the front, he shouted ‘aha!’ and dashed back to fetch the cables that still hung in the centre of the room.
John ventured over towards the box and was amazed to see not just several, but hundreds of wires of all different thicknesses and colours, weaving in and out of a selection of black and grey cubes that stood side by side in the centre of the unit.
One wire came in at the top of the box and twenty or thirty cables came out of the bottom, each winding off in different directions and then disappearing into the cupboards and furniture all around.
Balenor moved John to one side and began thumbing through the wires, finally settling on one and tugging at it, trying to dislodge it. Having no success, he noticed the head of a small screw next to the wire, brown with rust. Looking around, he picked up a knife that lay on a table nearby, inserted it into the screw-head and tried to turn it.
After a moment or two the screw slowly began to turn and the wire fell loose behind it. Removing the wire and replacing it with his own, Balenor tightened the screw to hold it in place, then mimicked the action with the other wire and waited.
John watched with him and waited.
Then Balenor waited a while longer.
Eventually, John asked, ‘what do we do next, Gramps?’
Balenor shook his head. ‘That’s meant to be it. Perhaps there’s a break in the wires somewhere.’
He began retracing his steps, holding the wires in both hands and smoothing them, straightening them out as he went. He muttered something unintelligible and began to ascend the creaking staircase up to the landing that would have once been the first floor.
John stared into the box in awe. How can anyone understand what that tangle of colour means? He gingerly reached out and touched the cable that his grandfather had just installed. Nothing happened. He began to touch the other wires, finding that some of them were flexible whilst others were absolutely rigid.
To the right of the box was a large red bar on a hinge. He slid his hand over it and felt it move slightly. Wrapping his fingers around it, he pulled it with a bit more force and it dropped three inches with a loud clunk.
The light-globes in the ceiling began glowing dully and several buzzing sounds began around the room. Balenor sensed the change and came back down the stairs, looking at the various lights that had appeared. ‘You’ve done it!’ he said to John. He looked around the room again and shook his head.
‘But we don’t have nearly enough power to run everything that’s here,’ he sighed. ‘We need to find some way to amplify it.’
He rushed off and returned a moment later with one of the books he’d brought from Khaviz, then began reading avidly. John sat still, watching him, but it was a long time before Balenor finally shut the book and said, ‘I may have an idea.’
The buzzing around the room persisted but John waited in silence for the old man to continue.
‘What we need,’ Balenor explained to his attentive grandson, ‘is something called a generator. It would take me a long time to build one but there may be one somewhere in this building that we can use.’
He took a large candle and began walking through the underground rooms, searching for any contraption that could be a generator. It wasn’t an easy task because everywhere he looked there were strange objects that needed investigating. He returned to the main room and looked again at the box of wires mounted on the wall.
John stood alongside him, examining the box. In the corner he could see a yellow badge with a black logo that seemed to portray a man being struck by lightning.
‘Look Gramps,’ he said, pointing it out. ‘That badge is the same as the one on the wall over there.’
Balenor followed his eye-line and saw a larger sign displaying the same image. He walked over and saw that it was mounted on a door that had been decorated to look like part of the wall. He tried to open the door but it was locked.
Finding a thin piece of metal, he slid it into the keyhole and wriggled it until he heard it click. By twisting the bar he was able to unlock the door and he opened it slowly, allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
There was a large metal cube, about three feet wide and three feet tall, on the floor at the end of the tiny room. He fetched more candles and placed them in a semi-circle on the floor, giving himself as much light as possible. He then instructed John to shut off the power.
Once that was done he referred to his book again, trying to verify that he’d found the correct device. Satisfied that he had, he set to work connecting up wires whilst a bewildered John tried to understand what he was doing.
Balenor was clearly nervous but the book he was using was very thorough and reassured him that he was doing everything correctly. As he was working he explained to John that if he made a mistake, the lektrizdi may go into him and do him some harm, so he had to be extremely careful.
When he had been working for almost half an hour he stood and stepped back from the machine, examining it in the same way a painter would review their latest work of art. He connected the unit to the box of wires in the main room and hesitated momentarily before throwing the switch to activate the power supply.
Instantly the room was swathed in warm yellow light. A whirring noise caused John to swing round, terrified. It came from a large cabinet in the corner that was bordered with a glowing rainbow. The machine flashed and suddenly a tremendous noise shook John, causing him to drop to the floor and cover his ears.
The sound continued to blare out, almost like music but combined with bizarre, robotic and unrecognisable noises. A man’s voice began to sing, echoing around the room.
‘Get your motor running... head out on the highway...’
Balenor rushed over and wrapped his arms around the boy, then whispered, ‘We did it!’
John looked up through his tears. Seeing the gleam of joy in his grandfather’s eyes, he forgot his fear and began to look round in wonderment. ‘Is this what you were trying to do?’ he asked quietly.
‘This is the magic of the Ancients,’ the old man replied. ‘Light without flame. Music without musicians. I don’t know how half of these things work but this is incredible!’
Beaming now, John leapt to his feet. ‘Let’s see what else we can find!’ He stood still for a moment, as if lost in thought, then spoke again. ‘Before we do though, can we please make this noise stop?’