A few hours later the R.L. sat in the small cellar-room of Raglyn’s townhouse, exhausted but too worried to sleep. Having decided that the Lawrum Inn was no longer a safe haven, Raglyn had offered his home as a hideout.
Only Gurta and Tanka had stayed at the tavern, heedless of the objections offered by the rest of the group. Gurta was devastated at the desecration of the old alehouse, and even though harbouring a deserter had made him a criminal, the Lawrum Inn was his home and he would not be scared away so easily.
Raglyn’s house was not an ideal place to lay low because it was in a busier part of town, where they would find it difficult to come and go inconspicuously. However, at least it was private and had not been compromised.
Balenor sat in one corner of the cellar with John, saying nothing. He was deeply disappointed at losing access to the fascinating historical site under the tavern but refused to stay there now for John’s sake. Ryden and Melca, Allisad, Senti, Branga and Aranin shared his silence.
Raglyn himself was devastated. He had only just been reunited with his nephew and now they’d been torn apart again.
‘Perhaps he escaped?’ he said suddenly; more in hope than expectation. The suggestion was met with shrugs and sceptical looks. ‘He could have heard them coming and left through the other door?’ Raglyn continued desperately. ‘Or maybe he was out for a walk when they arrived?’
‘Sure, it’s possible,’ Senti responded. ‘But I don’t tink it’s likely. He thought he was safest indoors; he had no intention of leaving the building. And the front door hadn’t been used because it was still bolted from the inside.’
Before the group had returned to the townhouse they had spread out and looked everywhere within a half-mile radius of the tavern; however the streets were dead and they hadn’t come across a single person in their search.
‘If he’s been arrested as a deserter, there’s only one place they will have taken him,’ Allisad said, ‘and that’s the Rektor barracks.’
‘Then what are we waiting for?’ Raglyn jumped out of his seat. ‘Let’s rescue him!’
‘It’s not that simple, I’m afraid,’ Allisad answered. ‘The sun is starting to come up so the barracks will be a hive of activity.’
‘Especially today,’ Senti added, ‘because today they’re marching from Rektor to join up with the rest of the army.’
‘Well I’m not going to sit here whilst my only nephew gets marched off to war again; he may not come back this time. You can all stay here if you want but I’m going.’
Allisad rose to his feet. ‘I’ll come with you; although I’m a wanted man so we’ll need to keep a low profile.’
‘I’m coming too,’ Branga insisted. ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. Melca, you’ll come too won’t you? We could really use your help.’
Melca shrugged. ‘Well I guess so, although I don’t think I’ll be a lot of use.’
‘Don’t be modest,’ Branga said. ‘You could take on anyone. Just like you did with those guards at the castle; no one else could have done that. Bang! Pow! Smack!’ He mimicked the fight as he spoke, causing Melca to blush bright red.
‘Are you coming, Ry?’ Melca asked.
‘I’m going to stay here, Mel. I need to speak with Aranin about some things.’ Aranin smiled broadly, although it looked more like a grimace on his gaunt face and Ryden turned away.
Balenor, John and Senti all chose to remain in the old house as well. Once the four men had left, Balenor went upstairs to the living room and found an old metal bathtub which he filled up from the water-butts outside. He lit a fire in the hearth, stripped off and immersed himself in the fresh water.
Once he’d scrubbed himself clean of the dungeon filth, he dressed and then called down the stairs to Ryden. The two of them changed the water and then Ryden took his turn in the tub. This was his first proper bath since leaving Cadmir and he enjoyed the feel of the cool water around him.
When he too had finished, he and Senti led Aranin up from the cellar-room and helped him to undress and climb into the bath. The moment he was in, they threw the old guard uniform onto the fire. Raglyn had been kind enough to leave out some clothes and a razor for the scrawny man, who was extremely grateful and began to hack off his beard.
Once he had finished in the bath, the water was black. Aranin himself, on the other hand, had scrubbed so hard that his skin was red raw and the weeping sores on his body glistened sickly in the firelight.
He pulled on the new clothes and collapsed into a chair, exhausted. Ryden had been through the kitchen and filled a large plate with fruit, bread, cheese, biscuits and anything else he could find. He also brought the man a large tankard full of water.
Aranin drank thirstily but after eating a few bites of bread and fruit he pushed the plate aside. Ryden was amazed but Balenor explained that his stomach had probably shrunk to the size of an apple because he hadn’t eaten properly for so long.
Once the bathtub had been emptied and cleaned, the three men sat together in the living room whilst Senti and John went upstairs to get some sleep.
Aranin took a breath and sighed deeply. Realising that Ryden and Balenor were watching him intently, he began to speak in a low voice.
‘I thought my life was over,’ he began. ‘What year is this?’
‘208,’ Ryden replied.
‘I see.’ Aranin adjusted his position and took another deep gulp of water. Ryden fetched a jug and refilled the man’s tankard. ‘Then I have been imprisoned for three years.’ He stopped and looked at his hands, as if seeing them for the first time. ‘I thought I’d been down there for at least ten. I have many questions.’
‘As do we,’ Ryden said eagerly.
The man raised his head slowly until their eyes met. ‘I doubt that I can answer your questions,’ he said in a sombre voice. Gone was his previous hysteria, replaced now by a world-weary resignation. ‘Please tell me; what is the state of the world today?’
‘We are at war,’ Balenor explained. ‘Three years ago, Kappland declared war on Rejkland and General Lazarus invaded Valihall.’
Aranin nodded, unsurprised by the revelation. Balenor continued.
‘Since then, Valihall and Delcia have fallen and I understand they have just taken Poranthia as well.’
Aranin turned to Ryden. ‘You are not Dario. Dario is dead. You are his son, yes?’
Ryden nodded. ‘Yes. And I know about the Network. I met Carrick and he explained everything.’
‘Carrick is alive?’ Aranin sat forward in his chair.
‘Carrick is with the Rejk army at Halgorn. He said that Cernos and one other member of the Network are still alive and he believes they are both in Gratolia.’
‘And the rest are dead.’ Aranin pursed his lips. ‘It’s my fault, Ryden. I gave up my friends. I deserve to be dead, not them.’
Ryden looked at him; a faded, desolate shadow of the man he undoubtedly once was. He shook his head. ‘Under those circumstances, Aranin, anyone would have talked. You mustn’t blame yourself. It’s Nazir’s fault for exposing the Network in the first place.’
‘Nazir? No, it wasn’t he who compromised us. I’m afraid it was your father who was our downfall, Ryden, for confiding in someone whom he thought he could trust.’
‘My father?’ Suddenly a flicker of doubt appeared in Ryden’s eyes. ‘He wouldn’t have. He didn’t even tell me about the Network. Who do you think he spoke to?’
‘I know who he spoke to, Ryden. The same person who betrayed Nazir and I. It was his brother; your uncle Borik.’
Melca, Allisad, Raglyn and Branga arrived outside the barracks not long after sunrise. As they drew close they heard several loud horns being blown. Allisad explained that they were summoning all the soldiers to the main yard for instruction.
‘Why don’t we see if we can spot Paldar lining up with the others?’ Raglyn suggested. Seeing three large oak trees looming over the eastern wall of the barracks, the four men began to scramble up through the branches, careful not to be seen by anyone below.
Fortunately it was still the height of summer and the trees were furnished with thousands of thick green leaves, meaning that the men were almost invisible from their vantage points amongst the branches.
Melca watched carefully as the men filed out from the old building. He was amazed at how many soldiers there were and instantly felt a sense of dread. These are the men that will be invading my country. They’re innumerable! How on earth can Halgorn defend itself against this many attackers?
More and more men filed out into the yard. From this distance it was difficult to make out faces and it was clear that the others were also struggling to pick out Paldar from the crowd.
Once all the men were assembled, a grizzled man in his late forties stepped out onto a raised dais at one end of the yard.
‘That’s the master of the barracks,’ Allisad explained. ‘His name is Gorlak and for years he was one of the most respected officers in the front line of the Kappish army. When he retired, he took over the running of the Rektor barracks. He’s an extremely hard taskmaster; I’ve seen him break the spirits of some of the most defiant warriors to ever walk through those gates.’
The crowds fell silent and Gorlak began to speak; his booming voice resonating off the stone walls of the building behind him, amplifying it tenfold.
’Men! We have an incredible task ahead of us. This afternoon we ride out to Halgorn and a few days from now we will mount a siege on their ruined castle and defeat the last Rejk outpost. We will soon be the most powerful nation in the known world.
’You have all been selected for this task and should consider yourselves privileged; you should be proud to be a part of the greatest nation on earth. However, you must not shun your duties. The courageous will be rewarded and the cowardly will be punished.
‘I know some of you do not wish to be here,’ he continued,’ however your king has asked you to fight for him. To refuse him is treason and is punishable by death. Any man who so much as thinks about deserting the army will find no mercy, in this world or the next.
‘To show that this is not an empty threat, let me introduce you to a man who thought his needs were more important than the king’s.’
As he spoke, a short stocky man with a square jaw and a thick, stout neck marched out onto the platform. Melca thought he looked familiar but was too far away to see the man clearly. In front of the soldier a skinny man stumbled across the wooden boards, his arms bound tightly by his sides.
Raglyn gasped and clapped a hand to his mouth. It was Paldar. They looked on in horror as he was jostled across the stage. At one point he tripped on a protruding nail but was hauled back to his feet by the bullish warrior behind him. A few men in the crowd jeered and someone threw a piece of fruit at him.
Branga began scrambling along a branch towards the top of the perimeter wall but Allisad clapped a firm hand onto the boy’s wrist.
‘What do you intend to do?’ he asked in a quiet but forceful tone. Branga opened his mouth to reply but found that he couldn’t answer the question.
‘Look how many guards are around the stage,’ Allisad continued, pointing to the edge of the podium. Sure enough, about twelve men stood in full armour around the dais, swords drawn.
Meanwhile, Paldar was being shoved to the far side of the platform where a wooden column rose from between the floorboards to support a thick beam. Melca’s stomach turned as he recognised the structure as a gallows.
The ugly warrior who had followed him now set about tightening a rope around the boy’s neck. Before Allisad could stop him, Melca had loaded his crossbow and fired at the hangman. Even from a distance of eighty yards, the bolt scored the man’s thigh before thudding into the wood behind him.
Suddenly there was chaos. Everyone in the crowd and on the dais began searching for the source of the attack. For a moment, Melca thought he had provided enough of a distraction to save Paldar. Then the hangman spat on his hand and yanked the large lever that rose from the deck.
The trapdoor beneath the young soldier opened and he fell like a stone. Branga and Raglyn cried out in shock and rage. The sound drew the attention of a number of guards, who pointed in their direction and began running towards the garrison gates.
Allisad was the first to react, leaping down through the branches and calling on the others to follow him. Branga and Raglyn were right behind him but Melca stayed frozen in place, his eyes fixed on Paldar. His arms shook and a lump formed in his throat as he watched the boy spasm, his life draining away. After one last convulsion, the body fell limp.
Melca’s eyes welled up but his arms and legs sprang into action, carrying him down from the tree without any conscious effort on his part. When he reached the foot of the tree he saw the others running off towards a row of buildings and dashed after them.
As they reached the first building, Melca heard the enormous wooden gates crash open behind him and glanced over his shoulder to see a number of guards pouring out from the barracks yard. He pushed himself into a sprint and followed Allisad, who was leading the group down a side alley and out into a busy marketplace.
Melca’s heart raced and his lungs burned as he tried desperately to increase his narrow lead on his pursuers, who were now hot on his heels. He leapt over a crate of apples and narrowly avoided a curious pig that had edged out in front of him. He could hear the men shouting behind him but didn’t dare to look round.
He ducked under a sheet that was draped between two stalls in front of him, then panicked when he realised he had lost sight of his comrades.
He tried to summon up another burst of speed and was about to leap over a tray of carrots that sat in his path when a strong hand grabbed his bicep. Before he could squirm free he was hauled from his feet and landed heavily, cracking his head on a flagstone.
Bright lights flashed in front of his eyes and his veins pulsed a hot, heavy drumbeat in his neck. His head swam, then stopped and trod water for a few seconds before sinking without trace.
When Melca came to, he was lying on his back on the cold floor with Allisad grinning down at him, one finger pressed to his lips.
Sitting up quickly, he found that they were hidden between two stone houses, in a tiny crevice that narrowed to a point where the walls of the two buildings pressed against each other. Raglyn and Branga were squeezed together behind Melca, crouched under a blanket. Allisad had wedged a wooden crate in front of them to conceal their hiding-place from view.
Seconds later the guards thundered past, trampling the market-traders’ wares and barging their unsuspecting customers to the floor. Melca stayed silent and motionless until the troop had passed, then made as if to stand up. Allisad held up a hand to halt him and moments later the hangman came into view.
He had been struggling to keep up with his comrades due to the gash in his leg and now he stopped to rest against the wall, mere inches from where the four men hid. Each of them silently waited, torn between their desire to kill the man and their need to remain undetected.
After a moment the man straightened and made as if to walk on. Before he disappeared from sight, however, he paused next to a jewellery stall, a thoughtful expression on his face. He began to chat to the elderly woman behind the small table, which was covered in necklaces, studs and all manner of precious stones.
‘Who is he?’ Melca whispered, his head still throbbing from his fall.
‘Bryce Butcher,’ Allisad replied. ‘One of the most depraved men in the Kappish army.’
They watched in silence. When Bryce had exchanged a few words with the old lady, Melca saw him reach into a pouch on his belt and withdraw an entire collection of chainlink necklaces, rings, bracelets and other valuable items. He laid them out on the table and the old lady lifted each one in turn, examining them for imperfections or damage.
After looking at three or four items she came to a gold ring, delicately shaped and inset with three rubies. Liza’s ring.
Suddenly Melca recognised the man. The bull-like face, the sinewy neck... an image flashed into Melca’s mind. This was the man he had seen leaving Cadmir after the fire.
As fury engulfed him he unclipped the small crossbow from his belt and fumbled for a bolt. Allisad was quick to spot his intentions and grabbed his wrist, clapping his other hand over Melca’s mouth.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ he uttered in a low voice. ‘We have no escape route. If we’re discovered here then we’ll all be killed.’
He continued to restrain Melca as the man accepted a large number of gold coins from the old lady and walked away. Melca shook with rage and tears flooded his ruddy cheeks but Allisad’s grip was unbreakable. Eventually Melca stopped struggling and sank back against the wall, defeated.
Back at the townhouse, Senti had woken up and was cooking a fried breakfast, whilst Balenor had disappeared upstairs to wake his grandson.
Ryden and Aranin were still sat together in the living room, talking and drinking. Ryden had quizzed him about Borik but it seemed that Aranin knew nothing more about the man than Ryden did; he was the tanner in Poranthia, he had no family other than Dario and he had a quiet, brooding nature.
Aranin had however told Ryden several stories about his father and about the Network; Ryden in turn had tried to get Aranin up to date with all that had happened over the previous three years.
After reminiscing about Dario and learning a bit about each other, Ryden and Aranin began discussing the war.
‘Rejkland are vastly outnumbered,’ Ryden explained. ‘We cannot win. But General Lazarus must be stopped otherwise more innocent people will die. Allisad doesn’t think he will stop at Rejkland; he thinks the army will push on and attack Gratolia as well.’
Aranin nodded. ‘I agree. He is drunk on power; a megalomaniac with no regard for human life. But I do not know what can be done.’
‘Carrick said you were once a close friend of King Garro. Can’t you reason with him and help him to see the general for what he is?’
Aranin laughed loudly. ‘Ha! What makes you think I would have any influence with the king now? It was on his authority that I was imprisoned in the first place.’
‘Many people thought you dead,’ Ryden advised, ‘so if Lazarus was responsible then perhaps he told King Garro the same story.’
‘It wouldn’t surprise me but even so, the king hasn’t seen me for three years. I can’t just stroll into the castle and expect to be greeted like an old friend. Remember that Lazarus is his confidant now.’
As they spoke, Senti walked in carrying two large plates of food and handed them to the two men. ‘Here y’are, you must be hungry from all that gossiping.’ She left the room and came back a moment later with her own breakfast. ‘So what’s the plan?’
‘Aranin is going to talk to the king,’ Ryden announced.
‘It won’t work,’ the man whispered feebly.
‘Look Aranin,’ Ryden continued, ’after Kappland was united, the king could have enjoyed a peaceful reign and maintained good relations with Rejkland. Surely he realises it was only Lazarus who wanted this war? It seems that none of his other advisors has dared to speak ill of the general since they learned of your fate.
‘Now the general is away and cannot prevent you from rebuilding that lost relationship. I am told that the king is a good man; you would know that better than most. Can you not appeal to his better nature? Raglyn will support you, as will many others. They just need someone who is strong enough to lead them.’
‘Allisad is well-known in this city,’ Aranin protested. ‘Why can’t he lead?’
‘Because he’s a monster and can’t be trusted,’ Senti snapped.
Ryden was taken aback by the reaction but continued. ‘Alli is an outlaw and mustn’t be seen in public; he will undoubtedly be recognised. You, however, have been all but forgotten.’
‘Very well,’ Aranin sighed. ‘If Grimbaul is still the king’s physician then I will contact him. He saw through Lazarus’s facade right from the start. He will also be able to grant me a private audience with the king. Now please excuse me but nature calls.’
His legs shook as he carefully pushed himself to his feet, the muscles weak from lack of use. Moving slowly and holding on to furniture for support, he walked out of the room and towards the back door.
Ryden rested his head against the back of the chair, his mind reeling. ‘Why do you dislike Allisad?’ he asked Senti suddenly.
’Where d’you want me to start? He led my brother to his death, Ryden, when they fought at Valihall. But that’s not the only reason.
‘Allisad the Hunter has an evil soul. He has more blood on his hands than half the army. He destroyed Valihall. He led the battle at Delcia where thousands of men died, both Kapps and Rejks. He ordered the massacre of a Rejk village filled with women and children. There’s no good in him, Ryden; none at all.’
As she spoke, Ryden’s blood ran cold. His throat was dry but he forced himself to ask the question. ‘What village?’
‘A place called Cadmir. Somewhere near the east coast I tink.’
‘Cadmir,’ Ryden whispered hoarsely. ‘You’re sure it was him?’
‘Oh yes. People call him the butcher of Cadmir. Apparently the general was so angry with him that he was exiled from the army.’
The back door of the small townhouse burst open and Melca, Allisad, Raglyn and Branga poured in. Ryden jumped to his feet and ran past them into the street beyond, leaving a cluster of bewildered faces in his wake.
The battle was savage and bloody. The small town of Dunelm had put up a surprising amount of resistance but after two days of fighting there were fewer than a hundred defenders remaining. As General Lazarus rode to the front line to survey the scene, the white flags began to wave.
He instructed the remaining Rejks to lay down their weapons. Once these had all been collected up, he gave the order.
‘No mercy. Kill them all.’
Laughing, he dismounted and leapt onto a nearby hay-wagon to address his army. He waited until the screams of the dying had been silenced and then began to speak.
‘Gentlemen! Congratulations on your victory; the war is almost won. At Halgorn we will fight the pitiful remnants of the Rejk forces. We will burn the city to the ground!’
A cheer went up and the warriors began to bang their shields with their swords. He held up a hand for silence.
‘As a reward for your loyal service to king and country, once Halgorn is nothing but a pile of rubble we will travel to Jalapa, where all those lovely Rejk women are waiting to serve you.’ More laughter and cheers rang out.
‘Make the most of what ale and women you can find in this dismal town tonight. Tomorrow we march on Halgorn.’
Melca found Ryden sitting on the bank of the river Rek, a few hundred yards from Raglyn’s townhouse. The smith tried to skim a stone across the scum-covered water but it hit a clump of floating weed and slowly sank from sight.
Melca sat down next to him and stared at the opposite bank. ‘Paldar’s dead,’ he said. ‘They hung him in front of the whole army; it was awful.’
Ryden said nothing.
‘I saw the man who killed Liza.’ Melca continued. ‘His name’s Bryce Butcher. I tried to kill him but Allisad held me back.’ He waited for a response but his friend’s mind was somewhere else.
‘I should’ve listened to you,’ Ryden said at last. ‘You knew that Allisad was no good but I refused to believe you.’
Melca frowned. ‘I don’t know, Ry. Perhaps I judged him too harshly. He helped us in the castle and he hasn’t let us down yet.’
Ryden raised his head and looked into the young baker’s eyes. ‘Mel... Senti told me something about Allisad. Something awful.’ He swallowed. ‘Apparently he ordered the raid on Cadmir.’
Melca blanched. His hands clenched until his knuckles were white and his nails dug into his palms. His eyes scanned Ryden’s face while he absorbed the information.
‘I can’t believe it. All that time he pretended to be our friend. When we told him we would get revenge... he must have been laughing behind our backs the whole time.’
Ryden remained silent.
‘So we kill him,’ Melca stated.
‘When it’s done we should leave here and ride back to Halgorn,’ Melca suggested.
‘No. We’ll leave Rektor first. He’s bound to come with us so we’ll wait until we’re clear of the city to do it.’
They rose and walked back to the house in silence. When they arrived, Gurta and Tanka were there and Raglyn was tearfully recounting memories of Paldar as a child. He’d opened a bottle of whiskey and poured a glass for everyone present, including Balenor who had come back downstairs with a sleepy John in tow.
‘Let us drink to our fallen comrade,’ he said, raising his glass. Melca drank his quickly and returned the glass, hoping for another. Ryden didn’t move but kept his eyes fixed on Allisad.
‘We have to leave,’ he announced suddenly.
The rest of the group turned to look at him.
‘So soon?’ Senti looked surprised.
‘I’m afraid so. We’ve done what we came to do.’ Ryden replied.
‘Where are you going?’ Branga asked Melca. I could come too, you know, if you wanted the company?’
Melca smiled briefly. ‘We’re going to Halgorn, so any extra support would be greatly appreciated.’
Branga’s eyes widened. ‘Ah. Well actually Halgorn’s quite a journey, isn’t it? I’m not the best of riders, as it happens...’ he stammered.
‘The courage of the young, eh!’ Balenor laughed. ‘Have a safe journey, lads. Here, take this.’ He took the torch from his pocket and handed it to Ryden. ‘I’ve fixed it for you; perhaps it will prove useful.’
Ryden turned it over in his hands in awe. ‘Are you sure you want me to have it? It’s probably worth a fortune!’
The old man shrugged. ‘There are lots of other artefacts that I can sell if I need the money.’
Gurta clapped a hand on Melca’s back and grinned. ‘Good luck, son.’
‘May the Author watch over you,’ Senti added.
Ryden placed a hand on Aranin’s shoulder. ‘Get yourself back to full health quickly, Aranin. The fate of Rejkland depends on King Garro withdrawing his troops. Only you can convince him to do that.’
‘Don’t worry, Ryden; I will make him see sense. Thank you for everything you have done for me.’
Ryden nodded an acknowledgement.
Allisad cleared his throat. ‘I will go with you both. It’s not safe for me in this city.’
Ryden clenched his jaw and forced a smile. ‘Of course, Allisad. It wouldn’t be the same without you.’
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Mike KavanaghWrite a Review