Allisad was in a foul mood. He kicked his heels into the black stallion for an extra burst of pace, but it was already at full gallop. Different landscapes flew by him. Flashes of woodland, rocky hills and lazy watercourses occasionally broke up the monotony of the endless fields, but there was still no respite from the punishing northerly wind.
He hawked and spat. A few days ago he’d been one of the most decorated officers in the Kappish army; the right-hand man and presumed successor to General Lazarus himself. Not that the old moose was likely to retire any time soon. Even so, Allisad had been highly regarded, with a glittering career and a promising future. Now he was a renegade.
He couldn’t return to Kappland, where King Garro would undoubtedly have a price on his head. Instead he’d headed south and was now lost in the wilds of Rejkland; the country he’d been at war with for half of his adult life. For the umpteenth time he asked his steed if he’d made the right decision. The horse tactfully remained silent.
It was three days since he’d stolen the courser and fled the army. He hadn’t recognised the beast and couldn’t be bothered to think of a clever name, so he’d settled on calling him Dave. When he’d told the horse his new name, Dave had snorted and rolled his eyes, clearly unimpressed.
‘Well I’m sorry if you don’t like it but you’ll have to get used to it. There’s no going back now,’ he’d said, as the broken walls of Delcia faded into the distance behind them. ‘You’re my horse now, Dave.’
Since then he’d ridden hard, constantly looking over his shoulder, expecting to see riders on the horizon at any moment. Once or twice he caught glimpses of people in the distance but none that seemed interested in him. If they were searching for someone, they weren’t looking very hard.
His stomach growled. He’d eaten nothing but a handful of berries since dawn, and he’d drunk the last of his water an hour ago. Seeing a wide stream ahead, he guided Dave off the mud track and dismounted to fill up his canteen.
As he leaned over the clear water he gazed at his reflection for a moment or two, noting the grey hairs that had begun to emerge on his crown. His warm brown eyes, flecked with grey and green, had developed a habit of creasing in the corners when he smiled. Age is subtle. The victim is always the last to notice.
He ran a hand over the stubble that had begun to form on his broad jaw. Budding wrinkles aside, he was not unattractive. His features were well-defined and his windswept hair, still dark despite the rogue greys, framed his boyish countenance well. Not bad for thirty years.
Dave, now accustomed to his new master’s vanity, stood nonchalantly beside him and leant forward to drink. He kept his head down for several minutes, stopping only when Allisad stripped off and jumped into the creek with a tremendous splash. Turning his head away in disapproval, the horse flicked his tail and went to stand in the shade of an old oak.
After bathing for a few minutes, Allisad climbed out of the water and lay on the soft grass to let the sun dry his skin. ‘It’s good to be naked,’ he told Dave. His thighs were red raw from riding bareback and the cold breeze soothed his blistered flesh. ‘I’d kill for a decent saddle.’
Leaving on the spur of the moment as he had, he was equipped with little more than the clothes on his back and the sword on his hip, and even they were a problem. He’d already torn the badges from his Kappish officer’s uniform but it was still recognisable.
He stood and begrudgingly eased himself into the brown roughspun trousers, wincing as they scraped against the tender flesh on the inside of his legs. Next he donned his shirt and sword-belt, but hesitated before picking up the jacket. It wouldn’t do well to be seen in it. Maybe he could fold it into a makeshift saddle, thereby cracking two nuts with one hand. He left it next to the creek, tethered Dave to a low branch and made his way further downstream.
Beyond a cluster of verdant green trees, he came across a small clearing where the bank of the stream receded into a flat beach of pebbles. Picking a spot next to the trunk of a willow, he stood motionless and waited for breakfast to hop on by. Sure enough, after a while several rabbits appeared.
Ffft. He drew a small throwing-knife from a pouch on his belt and held it between thumb and forefinger. A couple of ears pricked up in the long grass in front of him, then slowly relaxed when no subsequent disturbance came. With the skill of a trained hunter, he remained completely static whilst his meal unwittingly hopped ever closer.
Padoingggg. The knife flew from his hand and embedded itself in the damp mud, two feet behind where the rabbit had been mere moments before. Allisad paused and took stock. One rabbit remained in the clearing, twitching its nose and trembling like a leaf. The others were nowhere to be seen.
This time he was more careful. The movement began with a ffft again but finished with the more satisfactory thupp. Retrieving the dead rabbit, he returned to his camp and set it over a fire.
Once it was cooked he ate quickly; all except the legs, which he wrapped in leaves and tucked into a belt-pouch. Saddlebags, he added to his wish-list as he mounted up and set off again. Saddle, saddlebags, new clothes, bread and cheese... the list went on.
He rode south-east and before long he tasted salt in the air. He took a deep breath in through his nose and exhaled slowly.
It was a long time since he’d been this close to the ocean. The smell of sea air always relaxed him. It brought with it memories of lazy days in his childhood home of Bardor, a small coastal town that stood a few miles west of the capital city. The entire town had been built up from nothing when his grandfather was a boy, though it was one of the few places in Kappland that could make that claim.
The rest of the country was swamped in history and its capital, Rektor, had been a great city long ago, before the fall of the elders. Even there, little of the old world still survived today; but it was said that beneath the narrow streets and dirty houses, the ancient heart of the once glorious city was still beating.
Many of the tales seemed too far-fetched to hold true, though devout believers pressed their cause with books and artefacts; remnants of the previous age of man. To Allisad, it mattered not. If it was true, what difference would it make? He was a simple soldier. Why should he care what had taken place hundreds of years ago if he had bills to pay, or sick relatives to care for, or a leaking roof to fix?
Besides, even those problems were a lifetime away now, as he rode through an unfamiliar land racked with the turmoil of a war he had helped create. A chill ocean wind whipped at his arms and face, cold despite the morning sunshine, and he shivered.
‘I feel like I’ve been riding for days!’ Melca moaned. ‘This saddle is no good; it’s as hard as a rock. I’m so bruised I don’t think I can keep going.’
The hot sun was tempered by a refreshing breeze and the ground was soft from yesterday’s rain. All in all it was perfect riding weather, yet they had covered less than twelve miles and already Melca was complaining.
Ryden, who had heard little else since they set out, sighed pointedly. ‘As I’ve told you several times, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that saddle. The reason you’re sore is that you’re not moving with the rhythm of the horse. You need to drop your hips in time with her steps, instead of just bouncing up and down like a sack of potatoes.’
‘That’s easy for you to say, you’ve been riding for years. I bet you weren’t so composed when you rode for the first time.’
‘You’re right,’ Ryden replied, ‘I moaned and whined about it just like you. The difference is that people expect that from an eight year old.’
‘Well anyway, it’s about time we stopped for a rest. Let’s head for that cluster of trees.’
Ryden conceded, so when they reached the glade they dismounted and tethered Storm, Rusty and Shannon to the lower branches of a young elm. Rubbing his backside, Melca groaned and paced up and down, stretching his legs. Ryden stroked the horses and talked softly to them, congratulating them on the journey so far.
‘It’s me you should be praising,’ Melca said. ‘All they did was go for a walk. I had to suffer the pain of riding the damn thing.’
‘I think Storm did well to tolerate you,’ Ryden shot back. ‘That stallion you wanted would have stomped you into the mud hours ago.’ He stretched his arms and looked up at the azure sky, clear except for a few wispy clouds. Yawning, he drew his sword and held it on his open palms.
‘I’m really pleased with this, you know,’ he told Melca. ‘Tempering it was a pain, but the finish is wonderful. I must find out what the metal is; it may prove to be a valuable commodity.’
Melca fumbled with his own sheath and then drew the cutlass that Ryden had given him. ‘Did you make this one as well, Ry?’
‘I wish I had,’ Ryden replied. ‘Curved blades are more difficult to make; if I’d done it, it would be as uneven as a tree trunk and you’d never find a scabbard to fit.’
Melca swung the sword a few times, then began fighting an invisible opponent, commentating and making sound effects like a child wielding a stick. Ryden watched, bemused, as his friend swung the blade wildly and lost his balance.
‘Don’t extend your arm so much when you swing,’ he called out. ‘That’s what’s putting you off balance. Try to keep your elbows close to your body.’
‘Like this?’ To exaggerate the instruction, Melca held his elbow firmly against his hip and rotated his wrist, keeping his forearm completely still.
‘That’s perfect,’ Ryden laughed. ‘You’ll be a hero in no time!’
‘Or a martyr!’ Melca replied, grinning.
Ryden adjusted his grip on his own sword and gave a few practice swings, then moved alongside Melca and touched the point of his blade on the ground. ‘Let me give you a couple of tips,’ he offered.
‘Firstly, you’re holding it wrong. You’ve got your finger on the flat of the blade. That may be how you hold a breadknife but if you do that with a sword, you’re likely to lose your finger. You have to remember that when you clash swords with someone, they’re actually aiming for your body.’
Melca rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah, that’s kind of obvious. What’s your point?’
‘It means that the base of the sword has the most contact. Plus the blades will slide against one another when they connect. Keep your fingers below the cross-guard and they’ll be protected by it.’
Ryden held his sword horizontally above his head. ’There are five basic blocks you need to know. This is the first. You should use it to defend against downward sweeps from your opponent. Once you catch their blade you can deflect it away.
‘Next, a swing from either side at neck height. These are the most common attacks because if you decapitate your opponent, the fight tends to finish rather quickly. Your blocks for this are as follows. Number two…’ he held the hilt of the sword in front of his left nipple, pointing the sword straight upwards, ‘and number three.’ Keeping his elbow above his right hip, he swung his hand round until his arm was extended directly forwards, with the blade still vertical.
Melca snorted. ‘Come on Ry, this stuff is obvious. I’m not stupid, you know.’
‘Well what’s number four then?’ Ryden’s question was met with a blank look. ‘I’m not trying to patronise you, Mel, but if you’ve never been taught these moves then you ought to learn them.’
Melca sighed. ‘Ok then, swordmaster, you have my full and undivided attention. What’s next?’
‘The final blocks are designed to protect your legs from sidesweeps. Number four is almost identical to number two, except with your wrist turned half a circle so the blade points downwards and your palm faces your opponent.’
Ryden demonstrated, and when Melca was unable to emulate the position he reached over with his left hand and adjusted his friend’s position accordingly. ‘and then for number five you keep the blade pointed downwards but move the sword to protect your right leg, with the back of your hand facing the enemy.’
Having shown Melca all five parries, Ryden swung at him in slow-motion, each time calling out the number of the required block. He continued like this for a while, changing the order of the strikes, then switched so Melca could take a turn as the attacker. Finally the baker called a halt and sat down against a tree, panting.
‘I’m sorry, Ry, I can’t do any more. My arm is aching from all this work; I think this sword is too heavy for me.’
‘The sword is fine. You’re just using muscles you don’t often use, so they’ll need to gain strength. Don’t worry though; you’re getting the hang of it. We’ll practice again tomorrow. It’s time to get moving.’
Melca groaned. ‘I finally finish one gruelling exercise and then I have to get back on that thing and endure another.’
‘How do you think Storm feels?’ Ryden countered. ‘You’re not exactly a featherweight, you know.’ He helped Melca into the saddle, and chuckled as the baker rolled up a cloak and tucked it under his buttocks. Storm stood patiently while her rider squirmed in the saddle, getting comfortable.
Ryden untied her reins from the tree and handed them to Melca, before releasing the others and mounting swiftly. Touching his heels to Rusty’s flanks he moved off in a steady walk, leading Shannon on his left while Melca and Storm drew level on his right.
‘We’ve got another four or five hours of daylight left. With any luck we’ll make the coast tonight.’
Melca nodded. He didn’t relish the idea of more hours in the saddle, but not wanting to sound childish and with no other options available, he chose to remain silent.
The afternoon sun was to their backs and as the day wore on, their shadows stretched taller and taller, until the black horsemen outlined on the road in front of them were giants. As they rode, Melca tried to follow his friend’s advice, relaxing and swaying with Storm’s steps. He was becoming more accustomed to the mare, as she was to him, and soon he was able to communicate with the patient beast.
As Ryden had predicted back in the stables, Storm was very forgiving, even when Melca accidentally jerked the reins or kicked too hard. He was actually beginning to enjoy the bobbing motion of her steps, now he had suitable padding under his backside.
Not that he would let on, of course. A part of him still wanted to make his friend feel guilty for talking him into this. Even though the plan was sound, it wasn’t fair that Ryden could ride so easily, whilst he himself could only just hold his balance. The smith was better than him at just about everything.
They rode in silence for a while, both lost in their own thoughts. Ryden’s face was set, his gaze steely and his expression determined. Melca wondered what he was thinking. He couldn’t understand how his friend was so calm after everything that had happened.
Losing Silas must have hit him hard, even if he wasn’t showing it. Melca knew how close he’d been to the old barkeep. He recalled the last time they’d together, at the summer ball just a few days ago.
He and Ryden had been returning from a fishing trip when they’d seen Silas, grumpy and sweaty, rolling a wooden barrel out through the wide door of the Plough and Harrow tavern.
He was a heavy-set man, balding and stocky, with tanned skin and yellowing teeth. The little hair that remained on his head was spread sparingly above his ears and round the back of his skull, while his bald pate was left with no defence against the sun’s rays.
‘You must have known we were coming!’ Ryden had called out, gesturing to the barrel.
Silas glanced up quickly, sunlight glinting from his head as he did so. ‘If I’d have known you were coming, master Smith, I’d have locked up the cellar and bolted the doors!’ His voice was infused with twangs of the accent from the West Country, where he had lived as a child.
‘That’s no way to greet your best customers,’ Mel admonished, wiping away a bead of sweat that was trickling around his double chin. ‘Especially when they’ve had such a long and thirsty journey down from the hills!’
‘Everyone’s me best customer when the beer is free. This fete is going to ruin me.’
Silas began to tap the barrel, his thick fingers working with the ease of a musician playing his favourite symphony. ‘I suppose you won’t be tempted by a cool glass of water instead then?’ He mounted the barrel on a small folding table and filled a tankard from the newly-fitted tap. ‘You know the dancing is about to start?’
‘Dancing is best enjoyed with your backside on the floor and a cold beer in your hand, Silas, watching others exert their energy,’ Ryden answered. ‘You taught us that.’
The memory brought a smile to Melca’s face but it was short-lived. Reality always conquered nostalgia. The sun continued to beat down relentlessly and when the wind subsided he became increasingly uncomfortable. Sweat trickled down his back and his thick belt chafed against his stomach. He tugged his shirt down to protect it, then removed his leather jerkin and tucked it under a saddle strap.
Taking a draught from his canteen, he glanced over at Ryden, who was gazing at the horizon. ‘I’ve never seen the sea before,’ he mused. ‘Have you ever been there?’
Ryden took a deep breath. ‘No, but I’ve heard it’s beautiful. Can you imagine, just water as far as the eye can see?’
‘It must be very strange,’ Melca replied. He fell silent as thoughts clamoured for attention in his brain. When he spoke again, his voice wavered. ‘What’s going to happen to us, Ry? Where are we going to be a year from now, or five years from now? What if we can’t find anywhere to live?’
Ryden gave a sympathetic smile. ‘How can I answer that, Mel? I don’t know any better than you. What I can say is that we won’t go hungry. We have money and there will always be somewhere with food and a bed. We could even set up a combined bakery and smithy. Imagine that!’
‘That’s a terrible idea. Who would want to eat bread that tastes like burnt metal?’
‘You have a point,’ Ryden confessed, ‘but at least the metalwork will smell delicious!’
Behind them, the sun had touched the horizon and the sky was darkening. The trees were becoming fewer and the horses slowed as the terrain became rocky and uneven. When they reached the peak of a low wooded hill, Melca gasped. ‘There it is!’
Ahead of them, sparkling in the evening moonlight, was the ocean. A vast expanse of water, rhythmically lapping against a sandy beach less than half a mile away.
Ryden’s breath caught in his throat. It was beautiful. The water rose and fell, cresting in small peaks that foamed white for a moment, before dropping away as others swelled to replace them. It was simultaneously the most alien and the most natural thing that he’d ever seen. What shocked him the most was the sheer size of it. It was everywhere. Beyond the beach, nothing existed but water.
He turned to Melca, his eyes shining, but the young baker had turned pale and was swaying in his saddle.
‘Are you feeling all right, Mel? You don’t look well.’
‘I’m exhausted. We’ve been riding for hours and all I want to do is curl up in a soft bed, but I won’t even get that, will I?’
Ryden’s mouth opened but he had no reply. He frowned and changed the subject. ‘The air is so fresh here. Can you smell it?’
Melca just stared at the dry grass under Storm’s feet.
‘Come on, I’ll race you to the shore.’ Ryden spurred Rusty into a gallop, keeping one hand around Shannon’s reins as she ran alongside. Glancing over his shoulder he realised that Melca hadn’t changed pace, so he slowed again and waited for his friend to catch up.
‘What’s wrong, Mel? Are you sure you’re all right?’
‘I’m fine, I’m fine. I just need to get off this damn horse.’
As they reached the beach, Melca slid off Storm’s back and lay on the sand, leaving her to walk to the water, reins trailing. Ryden led the horses to a freshwater pool he found nearby. There was nowhere to tether them, so when they had all drunk their fill he tied the three sets of reins together, removed the saddles, then fed the horses and brushed them down.
Returning to Melca, he found his friend fast asleep and snoring loudly. He smiled and crept past him to a stony spit of land further along the beach where several pieces of driftwood had accumulated. He gathered as much as he could carry then made his way back towards the horses.
The sky was dark now and the sky was full of stars, forming unknown constellations above him. The wind whistled through the tough grass on the higher ground, flattening it against the dunes while the gibbous moon bathed the beach in a cold light.
Ryden found a sheltered hollow by a low rock-face and stacked the wood with care, placing a number of smaller twigs at the base. He took out his tinderbox and tried to light the kindling, but the constant breeze rolling in off the tide made it hard for any sparks to catch. When he finally had a good flame going he roused Melca, who snatched up their pack of provisions and set about preparing a meal.
‘The sooner we get some decent meat, the better,’ said Melca, chopping leeks on a large rock. ‘I was only able to bring a few strips of beef, and they’re as tough as boot-leather.’
‘Well you should’ve caught us something then,’ Ryden countered. ‘I’d have tried myself but I’m about as good an archer as you are a horseman.’
‘Very funny. Did you expect me to ride perfectly on my first day?’ He threw the leek butt and it bounced off his friend’s shoulder.
‘Come on, Mel, I’m only joking. You did well for a new rider,’ Ryden reassured him. ‘I’m sure tomorrow will be better.’
‘I can hardly wait,’ Melca grumbled.