About twenty miles north of Halgorn, Ryden, Melca and Allisad rode in silence. They had continued riding for two hours after leaving the city, concerned that the guards would chase them. Having put some distance behind them, they had then found a secluded area on the edge of some woodland to camp for the night.
The long day and late night had left them all feeling exhausted and it was with some relief that they’d finally settled down to sleep. Once Ryden awoke, however, he was immediately alert and paranoid about pursuit. He shook his companions awake and insisted they start moving.
The horses were tired too. Although they had been bred for lengthy campaigns, the interrupted night had left them as irritable as their exhausted riders. The three men rode in a slow trot to allow the beasts to warm up their muscles.
Ryden absent-mindedly rubbed his hand across his cheeks and chin, somewhat pleased with the stubble that had developed in the eleven days since he’d left Cadmir. He glanced at Allisad, who had adopted another of his solemn silences and rode expressionless alongside Melca.
Melca too seemed grouchy. As Ryden watched he took a long draught from his water-bottle and started coughing. Allisad didn’t bat an eyelid.
The day was warm, although several bulbous grey clouds hung low in the sky, threatening rain. The pressure had changed too and Ryden thought he could smell a storm coming. Perfect. As if the mood isn’t miserable enough!
Several minutes passed when all he could hear was the wind through the nearby trees and a smattering of birdsong. He had just begun to drift into a daydream when Melca suddenly swore loudly. His thoughts interrupted, he looked up sharply. ‘What’s wrong?’
’It’s all just pointless, isn’t it? We’ve ridden across almost the entire country and we’ve achieved nothing. What did we set out for? To find the villains who destroyed our home. We’re still no closer to finding out who they are.
‘What’s more, the Rejk army think we’re deserters and we’re about to ride into enemy territory to look for someone who we’ll probably never find and who may even be dead already!’
Ryden stared open-mouthed at Melca. ‘Right. Well firstly, we’re not deserters. Carrick will set the record straight on that. And he wouldn’t have sent us to Rektor unless he thought we could succeed.’
‘You know,’ Allisad intoned, ‘you’re putting an awful lot of trust in a man you’ve only just met. What if he’s got an ulterior motive?’
‘Like what?’ Ryden demanded. ‘What other reason could he possibly have for sending us?’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Melca yelled. ‘It doesn’t matter why he asked us to go. The point is that it’s not our responsibility. This whole war is nothing to do with us. I just want to find the people responsible for what happened at Cadmir and cut their throats.’
Ryden was stunned. He’d never heard his friend speak with such malice and it unsettled him. ‘Look Mel,’ he reasoned, ‘we’ve talked about this. We don’t know their names or where they are. If we can get a lead on them then we’ll pursue it but otherwise I think it’s a lost cause.’
Melca cursed and slammed his fist down on his saddle, causing Storm’s ears to twitch.
‘If it helps,’ Allisad offered, ‘I might know who it was.’
‘Really?’ Ryden asked.
‘Who?’ Melca demanded.
‘Look, I don’t want to cast aspersions unnecessarily. Let’s just say I can ask some questions when we get to Rektor and find out if my suspicions are correct.’
‘Fine.’ Melca said. ‘Then we’ll go to Rektor, find out who it was and track them down. If we’re lucky they’ll be in the city but if they’re with the army then that’s where we’ll have to go.’
‘And what about Aranin?’ Ryden quizzed him. ‘Surely our priority has to be finding him.’
‘Why? Why does it have to be? That’s not our problem. I just want to make those pigs pay for what they’ve done. I don’t give a damn about some guy who used to be mates with the king.’
‘Ryden’s right,’ Allisad said softly. ‘This is bigger than any one of us. If Aranin really can stop the war, which I’ll admit I’m still sceptical about, then he could prevent any more tragedies from happening. We’ve got the chance to do something momentous here, something good. We can stop any other innocent people from dying. Your revenge can wait until the war is over.’
Melca was fuming but said nothing. He’s just trying to protect his kinsmen. He doesn’t know what we’ve been through. He won’t even tell us who the culprits are!
It began to rain; heavy droplets cascading down onto the three travellers and doing nothing to lift the mood. The shower quickly became a downpour and the sound of the rain drowned out any attempt at normal conversation.
Melca glowered at the back of Allisad’s head, asking himself the same question over and over again yet unable to get any closer to the answer. What is he hiding?
The R.L. huddled together in the underground chamber, gazing in awe at the hidden treasures surrounding them. In front of them stood Balenor, proudly lecturing them on the magic of the Ancients and how they had created a world of permanent light and colour.
Branga stared around the room in horror. ‘This isn’t natural! What are you, some kind of sorcerer? This is the work of the devil!’
Gurta shuffled from one foot to the other and laughed nervously. ’It’s strange, I know, but ‘e explained it and it kinda makes sense.’
‘I don’t want anyting to do with no devilry,’ Senti announced.
‘It’s nothing like that,’ Balenor insisted. ’It’s science. When you put clay into an oven and it turns into brick, no one calls that witchcraft. When you put iron into water and it develops rust no one bats an eyelid. It’s just the way that objects react with the elements.
‘This is merely another way to use the elements of nature to make things happen. One hundred years ago, men would have found a water-pump strange and unnatural. Fifty years ago a clock would have been considered witchcraft.’
‘That is a compelling argument,’ Raglyn stated. ‘Legend states that the Ancients had all kinds of powers that are now lost in the mists of time. And if they were our ancestors, it stands to reason that we too could possess those powers if we just understood them.’
Senti shrugged. ‘There’s a lot in this world I don’t understand.’
Branga nodded but continued to watch Balenor suspiciously.
Suddenly, shrill noises began to sound from the far corner, like dozens of chimes and bells going off all at once. John was standing in front of a large glass-topped cabinet, tapping buttons that sat on either side of the unit. The noises were coming from the furniture and brightly coloured lights flashed underneath the glass.
The rest of the group spun round to look at him and Senti went over to where the young boy was playing. ‘What’re you doing there?’ she asked. ‘You’d better watch yourself, that ting could be dangerous.’
‘Don’t worry, it’s just a game,’ John replied. ‘I’ve got to keep hitting that ball with the flippers to stop it from falling down the hole.’
‘Right y’are then.’
‘Do you want to play?’ John asked, then blushed as she smiled at him. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
‘Not right now, me love, you keep on.’
Gurta’s eyes were drawn to a raised table that looked similar to his bar upstairs. A smile grew on his face as recognition dawned. ‘This place was a tavern,’ he exclaimed.
He walked behind the bar and began to test all the pumps. They had all dried up decades ago, of course, but he was still fascinated by the technology. Some of them had extra tubes, buttons and all kinds of bizarre paraphernalia.
Branga was the boldest and had ventured into the next room. He was keen to understand how this new magic worked and had figured out that the white lever on the doorframe created light. He flicked it on and off several times, then stood directly beneath the burning globe and tried to blow out the light, to no avail. He tentatively reached out and touched it, then withdrew his hand suddenly as a searing pain shot through his fingertips.
He cried out and Tanka rushed in from the next room, concerned. ‘Banga hurt?’ he asked, worry etched across his childlike features.
‘It’s nothing; I’m fine,’ the young man replied.
‘Banga ow,’ Tanka persisted.
’It’s Branga, actually. Yes, I said ow because I burnt myself but I’m fine now.
The simpleton smiled, happy that his new friend was not seriously injured. Meanwhile, Raglyn was talking excitedly to Balenor about possible uses of this new-found power.
‘And where does this lektrizdi come from, exactly? Do you find it in underground springs, like water? What does it look like?’
‘Actually, you can draw it from the air around you. Anything that moves can create lektrizdi. Look at this.’ Balenor drew back his sleeve to reveal a large, metal bracelet with a glass circle in the centre. As Raglyn looked closer, he saw something moving under the glass.
‘This is one of the timepieces that the Ancients used,’ Balenor explained. ‘It’s like a tiny clock without any weights or pendulums. All I have to do is wind up this little dial every morning and it keeps moving all day.’
‘Balenor, I’d like you to join our movement. We could use someone with your brains – imagine what we could do with all this technology!’
Balenor shrugged casually. ‘Well, I’m happy to help out. I don’t have much else to do here in Rektor. As long as my boy’s welcome too,’ he added, gesturing towards John.
‘I don’t see why not,’ Raglyn grinned. ‘As long as he can keep a secret!’
‘Well, for the most part,’ Balenor replied with a smile.
The day had been long and tiresome for Ryden. Almost the entire ride had been spent in an uncomfortable silence and when he did try to initiate conversation with either of his companions, they cut him off abruptly.
Melca had been particularly moody. He had grumbled and sworn as he rode and Ryden began to think his friend was ill. A sheen of sweat covered the baker’s brow and he kept gulping thirstily from his canteen. Ryden had even suggested that they stop on several occasions but Melca had insisted that he didn’t want to delay any longer than was absolutely necessary.
It was now dusk and they had finally stopped for the evening. Although it was hard to judge, Ryden felt they must’ve covered almost sixty miles since they set out that morning; equivalent to the distance from Cadmir to Sharbury.
They’d eaten a small meal of dried beef and a salad that Melca had prepared from the leaves of nearby plants. Although the portion was meagre, it had proved to be more than enough for Ryden because throughout the day he’d been picking at the bread, cheese and fruit that he’d brought with him from Halgorn.
Allisad was now stretched out under a large tree, asleep. Melca sat on the other side of the fire, staring at him.
‘I can’t stand it, Ry,’ he said eventually. ‘Why has this guy latched on to us? We only met him a few days ago and now we can’t go anywhere without him following us around. I hate him.’
Ryden frowned. ‘Now look Mel, I know the two of you don’t always see eye to eye but he’s not that bad. He’s offering us his help and I think it will be invaluable to us when we get to Rektor. We can’t mimic accents like he can; without him we might not even get past the city gates. That alone should give us reason enough to tolerate him.’
‘Yes, but we can’t trust him. He’ll probably turn us in when we get to the gates. In fact that’s probably why he volunteered to come; maybe there’s a reward for capturing Rejk soldiers! Aha, now it makes sense!’
’Mel, you’re being silly. He’s been exiled, remember? There’s probably a much larger reward on his head.’
‘Unless he’s going to use us to buy his pardon. Look, why don’t we ride off now, whilst he’s asleep. Then at least we’ll be safe, instead of worrying about how and when he’s going to betray us.’
Ryden was furious. ‘After all the help he’s given us so far? Mel, that’s shameful. If you want to leave then go ahead but I’m staying right here with Allisad. I’m sure he’ll be far more help than you in Rektor!’
He stormed out of the clearing and kept walking until he came to a small stream. Slumping down on a rock by the water’s edge, he splashed the icy water onto his face and tried to calm himself. Why does Mel have to be so suspicious of everybody?
He took several deep breaths and then walked back towards the camp. When he drew into sight he saw that Melca had taken the small handheld crossbow from his bag and was fumbling to load one of the black-hafted bolts into the chamber. At first Ryden thought he was going to practise his shooting but then he realised in horror that his friend was advancing on the prone form of Allisad.
Ryden broke into a run. By the time Melca had reached the Kapp, Ryden was still twenty yards away. Screaming at him, the young smith sprinted to make up the distance. As Melca looked up, Ryden leapt towards him and knocked him from his feet. The deadly bolt hissed harmlessly into the mud about two feet from Allisad’s chest.
They hit the ground hard and rolled, the wet grass soaking them as they wrestled. Melca lost his grip on the crossbow and lay still, panting. Ryden began to shout.
‘What on earth do you think you’re doing? You were about to murder a man in his sleep! What’s wrong with you?’
Melca’s eyes rolled back in his head. Ryden, who was now straddling the baker, adjusted his position so that he was kneeling beside him. As he did so, Melca convulsed then rolled onto his side and vomited.
Worried now for his friend’s health, he unstoppered Melca’s water canteen and emptied the contents onto his face to revive him. But instead of clear water escaping, strong-smelling brown whiskey sprinkled from the flask.
Melca threw up again. Allisad was now awake and had scrambled to his feet in concern; blissfully unaware of the danger he had been in mere seconds before.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked Ryden.
‘He’s drunk,’ Ryden replied. ‘His water-bottle was filled with whiskey and he’s been drinking it all day.’
Allisad grabbed Melca’s chin and turned his face towards him. Pulling one eyelid open with his thumb, Allisad began speaking. ‘Mel? Mel? Can you hear me?’ He turned to Ryden. ‘How much has he drunk? He’s almost unconscious.’
Ryden shrugged. Allisad slapped Melca hard across the face and the baker’s eyes flew open.
‘Mel, this is your friend, Alli. I want to help you. How much have you drunk today?’
‘Dunno,’ came the terse reply.
‘When did you start drinking?’
‘When we left Cadmir.’
Ryden was stunned. ‘You mean you’ve been sneaking whiskey since day one? Why?’
‘You won’t get any sense out of him tonight,’ Allisad muttered to Ryden. ‘Let him sleep it off.’ As he spoke he rolled Melca back onto his side, folding his right arm beneath his head for support.
Ryden opened his mouth to explain what had just happened, then thought better of it. Instead he just retrieved the crossbow and bolt and hid them in his own saddlebags. As an afterthought, he opened Melca’s bag and found a half-litre bottle of Dann Jackal’s Whiskey.
He removed the stopper, poured the contents onto the soil beside him and replaced the bottle. He then proceeded to check the other bags and found two larger bottles, one full and one almost empty, and drained those as well.
At long last he pulled a blanket from his own bag, laid his saddle on the ground as a makeshift pillow and stretched out on the cold grass. It was wet and uncomfortable and Ryden found himself wishing for a soft bed; but after lying still for several minutes, exhaustion overtook him and he drifted into a fitful sleep.
The following day was long and hot and Paldar’s shoulder throbbed constantly, so when the evening arrived he was sweating profusely from a combination of the heat and the pain. It was therefore with some relief that he crested the last hill and the city gates came into sight.
Rektor was a striking city to behold; huge stone walls and towers looming high above the mighty river Rek that wove its way between the impressive buildings.
In front of Paldar, the rest of Hawk squadron were singing a crude chant that glorified Kappland and degraded every other race that one could care to name. They had been singing this song, on and off, for the entire journey and Paldar was sick of hearing it.
The frustration now was only slight, however. Paldar’s mind was on his escape plan. It was simple enough; he would wait until an opportune moment and disappear down an alley somewhere. Having spent his entire childhood in those streets, he knew them like the back of his hand.
He’d make his way to a place where he knew he would be safe and then send a message to his uncle. All he needed was an opportunity to slip away.
The opportunity didn’t present itself that night, however. Upon arrival the entire troop were escorted to the barracks, where a banquet had been prepared for them. Paldar didn’t begrudge this in the slightest, though he would have rather eaten it in different company.
By the time they had finished the meal it was pitch black outside and Paldar knew full well that the guards at the main gates were there to stop people from leaving the barracks without authorisation. Seeing no other alternative, he made his way to the assigned dormitory and lay awake, his mind reeling with thoughts and plans and worries about the day ahead.
Melca’s day had not been any better. Not only had his head been pounding like a war-drum and his stomach churning with every step that Storm took, but he had also spent the entire time under close observation from Ryden. What does he think I’m going to do? Surely he should be watching Allisad?
They’d now made camp no more than a couple of miles from Rektor and were gathered around a small fire. Melca sat in silence, wrestling with a dilemma. Should he trust Allisad and risk being handed over to the Kapps tomorrow, or try once again to get Ryden away from Allisad? The latter would be a difficult task given Ryden’s faith in the man but the former could prove fatal.
Ryden was sitting on the other side of the fire, chatting with Allisad but watching Melca intently. Melca felt as though he’d become the enemy, simply for trying to keep himself and his friend safe. It was galling.
He raised his flask to drink a few drops of water. His hand shook as he did so. He thought again about what Ryden had said the night before, that without Allisad they may not even get into Rektor. Melca needed to get into the city as soon as possible; he needed a proper drink.
If the only way to get through those gates is to go in with Allisad, then I’ll have to take that risk. But if he betrays us, so help me, I’ll make him rue the day.
The night sky was a deep ocean blue and the land was dark, but the magnificent walls of Halgorn were well-lit to welcome the Rejk army, who now approached. Lanterns had been placed in two rows around the outer walls, one row ten feet from the ground and one a further ten feet above that.
The scouts had returned several hours ago to spread the word that General Paglaia and the bulk of the Rejk forces would be arriving shortly. Many of the local townspeople now jostled on the parapets to get the first look at the soldiers.
When the ranks of men came into sight they stretched across the horizon, seemingly countless men marching forward with standards raised; however the sight was not as impressive as many had expected.
Rather than structured ranks of proud soldiers in polished silver armour, all that approached were two thousand casually-dressed men, unshaven and weary from their week-long march from Jalapa. Nevertheless, an immense cheer went up when the first soldiers came into sight and the applause continued until the last man had entered the gates of the stronghold.
Orders had been given to the people of Halgorn that every household would be required to provide food and shelter for one soldier, so once the clamour had begun to die down an awkward unification process began as people tried to build rapport with their counterparts.
Leaving the troops to organise themselves, General Paglaia drifted away from the rabble and headed towards the town hall, where he knew the king would be awaiting his arrival. As he walked he brushed the dust from his shirt and trousers, anxious to look his best before arriving in front of King Rogar.
When he reached the town hall he stopped outside the door and ran his fingers through his wavy silver hair. Checking his clothes one last time, he cleared his throat and stepped through the door.
Once inside, the guards greeted him and led him away to an upstairs chamber where the king sat motionless, gazing out of a broad window at the commotion below. The general waited for the king’s gesture and then went to sit next to him in the window bay.
King Rogar looked at the man whom he had put in charge of his army almost nine years ago. The general was still muscular despite having reached his sixth decade; his lean frame was a testament to the fact that he still obeyed a daily exercise regime and was a lot more active than many of his age.
His years showed in his face, however. Deep lines criss-crossed his face; some were scars but many more were the ravages of time, deep-set wrinkles that spoke of a turbulent life and a diverse range of experiences. Many of these experiences were in the service of Rejkland, a fact that was not lost on the king.
‘It’s good to see you,’ he said with a weary smile.
‘Likewise,’ came the response.
They sat in silence for a minute or two, comfortable in each other’s company. The general was not just a loyal subject but also the king’s oldest friend.
A servant entered the room with a bottle of red wine and knelt in front of the king. He poured two large glasses and then half-filled a smaller glass. Putting the bottle on a small table, he proceeded to drink the cool liquid from the smaller glass, demonstrating that there was no poison present. He then stood, bowed to the two men and left the room.
‘You’re in a talkative mood,’ the king said at last. General Paglaia nodded solemnly. ‘What’s on your mind?’ the king continued.
‘Numbers, my liege.’ Even in private he had always addressed the king formally, despite Rogar’s frequent protestations. ‘I am not usually one to submit to negative thoughts but the task we face seems insurmountable.’
The king sipped his wine but said nothing, waiting for the other man to continue.
‘Two thousand men have walked here with me. You rode in with three hundred men earlier this week. Even with Halgorn’s complement, we have three thousand men at best. How many does Lazarus have?’
‘My most recent reports suggest almost nine thousand,’ the king advised.
So they outnumber us by three to one. And their men are all trained warriors. What do we have? Teenage boys and elderly tradesmen.’
‘And what else?’ the king prompted.
‘If you’re thinking of Gratolia, they still haven’t offered their support. Not unless you’ve had news in the last few days.’
‘No news from Gratolia. But you are forgetting Halgorn. Not the inhabitants but the city itself. You know your histories; cities under siege can often repel far greater numbers than they themselves possess.’
‘True. But I trust you haven’t forgotten the ten thousand men that Lazarus has waiting in the wings? The reinforcements that the exile Allisad told you about? Assuming of course that we can believe the word of a traitor.’
’I did not say this war would be easily won. Indeed, we will undoubtedly suffer great losses. But you must not lose faith. Quite the opposite, you must infuse hope in your men; inspire them, drive them on, give them the belief that they will succeed.
‘So much of war is played out in the mind, old friend. Do not let your fear stifle your hope.’
Two hours before sunrise, Allisad shook Ryden awake. Bleary-eyed, Ryden sat up and took a draught from his canteen. He watched as Allisad placed a hand on Melca’s shoulder and shook him gently.
He had never seen any malice in the Kapp and found it hard to see why Melca had taken such a dislike to him. Was it jealousy? Ryden had spent a lot of time practising his swordsmanship with the man, leaving Melca to his target practice. Perhaps the baker just felt left out.
Admittedly, Allisad had made a couple of rash comments when they first met. Melca was the sort of person that took insults to heart, even when said in jest. Perhaps once we’ve accomplished our task in Rektor we’ll part company with him, Ryden resolved, but not before. Allisad would be a useful ally to have once they got inside the city.
Melca woke and stretched, the bones in his neck clicking as he did so. He cursed and began to rub it. ‘The sooner we can find a soft bed again, the better. I can’t keep sleeping rough like this; it’s not good for me.’
The black sky was starting to get lighter and one or two birds had already begun their morning songs. Allisad was packing up his blankets and preparing to leave.
‘Why have you woken me now?’ Melca complained. ‘It’s still the middle of the night. No wonder I’m still tired.’
Allisad smiled. ‘The best time to get through the gates without incident is just before dawn. The guards on the night shift are less attentive, especially when their watch is about to end.’
He turned away and began to feed the horses, speaking to them in a low voice as he did so. Melca nudged Ryden.
‘If you’re absolutely sure about this then we’ll ride in with Allisad. But if he betrays us then on your head be it.’
Relax, Mel,’ Ryden whispered. ‘Everything will be fine. You’ll see.’
Once the trio had saddled their horses they mounted and rode the last two miles to Rektor. As they drew close to the gates, Allisad hushed his companions with a wave. When he was twenty feet away he reined in his horse and Ryden and Melca did the same.
An overweight guard sat in a rickety chair, looking at them. After a few minutes he stood up and strolled towards them. ‘What business in Rektor?’ he asked in a monotone. The words were routine and it was clear he had no interest in the answer.
‘We live here,’ Allisad responded curtly.
The guard rolled his eyes. ‘Where’ve you been then?’
‘Hunting. Not that it’s any of your business.’
The guard shook his head. ‘I don’t believe you. If you’ve been hunting, where’s your game?’
‘We didn’t catch anything. I was trying to teach my nephews here but they’re a lost cause. They couldn’t hit a house if they were inside one.’
The guard looked at the boys with a raised eyebrow, then shrugged and walked back to the gates. ‘Go on then. If I were you I’d get inside your house quickly though.’ He stopped talking to swing open the enormous wooden gates.
‘Why’s that?’ Allisad asked.
‘They’re press-ganging any man under fifty into the army. So unless you want to be marched out of these gates again tomorrow, you’d best keep a low profile.’ The guard tapped his nose and winked.
Allisad thanked him and the three men rode into Rektor. Melca let out an audible sigh but his relief was quickly put into perspective when the impenetrable gates crashed shut behind him, trapping them in the hostile city.