The beach stretched about fifty yards from the sea, where it ended in low cliffs covered in long, windswept grasses. Some of the crags were little more than mounds of earth, no taller than a man. Beyond the wild grass, hardy shrubs sprouted from the sandy soil to wither under the merciless sun.
The wide shore was hard and flat and soon proved to be an easier riding surface than the thickets of beachgrass, so for most of the morning Ryden and Melca rode along the sand. In the early afternoon, at Melca’s insistence, they’d stopped to bathe in the cold sea and wash away the clammy sweat that coated them.
Further south, the sand became softer and they were forced to move inland, riding along clifftops or through thick meadows instead. Wherever possible, they kept the sea in their sights to avoid losing their bearings.
About an hour before dusk the first signs of civilisation appeared. Dirt tracks that became roads, coated with a fine layer of gravel and small stones, wove between the groves of trees. Damaged arrows lay by the wayside, along with fragments of broken bottles. Sharbury was known for producing great works of glass; although Melca doubted the reputation had come from beer bottles alone.
They were still no more than five hundred yards from the coast when the beaten track led into a wooded glade. Melca rode slowly, paying close attention to the low branches that threatened to unhorse him if he lost concentration. Ryden was a few paces ahead, eager to catch a glimpse of the village.
‘Ry, I need to stop. I can’t hold my bladder any longer.’
Ryden chuckled. ‘No problem. Can you keep Shannon with you then? I want to ride on ahead and see how much farther it is to the village.’ He handed the packhorse’s reins to Melca. ‘Don’t forget to tether them both when you dismount; you don’t want them getting spooked and running off without you!’
With a grin, Ryden spurred Rusty forward, allowing Melca to relieve himself in peace. As he rode on, the road became wider and more worn. ‘Can’t be far now,’ he said aloud, patting the charger’s neck. ‘You’ve done well; we’ll get you some good grain when we arrive.’
He reached a clearing where four old men were sitting on a fallen log, drinking beer and laughing boisterously. ‘Good afternoon,’ he called, nodding his head towards them as he approached.
‘Good day to you,’ one of them said. As Ryden steered around them, the man stood and held up a hand.
‘Just a moment, lad. Have you come from Poranthia? What news of the war? We haven’t had word for days.’
Ryden reined in his mount, then sat back and reached for his canteen. ‘Delcia’s fallen. I can’t speak about Poranthia. I guess that’s where the Kapps will strike next.’
‘That can’t be right! Why, only two weeks ago, two hundred men left here for Delcia. My boy led one of the squadrons. They must have got there by now.’
‘If your son was amongst them, you should pray they didn’t arrive. I heard that Delcia fought to the last man standing.’
One of the man’s comrades spoke. ‘Boy dun’t know what he’s sayin’, Karl. Kapps ain’t gunna take Delcia.’
‘What would you know, Dirk? He’s been there, you ain’t. I oughta tell the missus before she starts hearing rumours, you know how she gets.’ He turned his attention back to Ryden. ‘Right, boy, how much for the horse?’
‘I’m afraid he’s not for sale. I’ll need him for the rest of my journey.’
‘Now look, lad. I need a horse quickly so I can get back to the village and give them the news. You’re the only one here who has a horse, so we need to come to some arrangement.’
‘I’m sorry but he’s not for sale. You’ll need to find passage some other way.’
‘Don’t misunderstand me now. I’m going to have that horse, whether you accept money for it or whether I have to remove you by force.’ He lunged forward, reaching for the bridle. Rusty reared and took a couple of steps backwards, while Ryden drew his sword. The lanky man who Ryden had identified as Dirk laughed slowly.
‘You ain’t gunna take us all on, kid. Don’t be daft; d’you even know how to use that fing?’ He pulled out his own sword and swung it in a sweeping arc towards Ryden, who parried it quickly. Meanwhile, one of the others had edged around the clearing to approach from behind, knife in hand.
Unnoticed by Ryden, he pounced forward, intending to grab at the boy’s leg. As he did so, an arrow appeared in his right shoulder and he fell back, shocked. The others looked around for the unknown archer and Ryden took the opportunity to swing at Dirk, opening a wide gash in his leg.
Karl gathered up a long stick from the forest floor and sprang forward again, trying to prod Ryden from the horse. Ryden parried once, twice and as the man moved in for a third strike he too was struck by an arrow, which sunk into his side just under his ribcage. He clutched at it, yelling in pain.
Without waiting for the next attack, Ryden kicked his heels into Rusty’s flanks to ride away. The fourth man had been hanging back but now stood with his arms spread, blocking the path. As the horse gathered speed, however, he had second thoughts and jumped into the bushes at the side of the road.
Ryden thundered down the muddy track, scanning the surrounding woodland. Within moments Melca emerged from the trees behind him, clinging to Storm for dear life while Shannon ran along behind, her reins draped loosely across her pack. Over Melca’s arm was slung his bow, still strung, and a quiver of arrows that rattled against his shoulder blades with every stride.
They didn’t slow down until they were out of the woods and within sight of the village. It glowed in the distance, as if calling to them. Despite being no more than a few rows of thatched houses and shops, it was a welcome sight.
As they drew closer, the hubbub of people grew louder. Candles burned in most of the windows and the streets were lit with small fire-bowls, mounted at waist height in front of the sturdy cottages, a safe distance from the overhanging thatch. Although Sharbury was different to Cadmir in appearance, the sounds and smells were hauntingly familiar; a poignant reminder of what they’d lost.
‘Back to society,’ Melca breathed, his relief evident. ‘Now let’s find somewhere to stay before those men get here.’
‘I don’t know what you’re worried about,’ Ryden said. ‘They didn’t even see you.’
The stables were at the edge of the village, and as they approached they saw a young boy brushing down one of the horses. Ryden dismounted and called out to him.
‘Excuse me? Do you have room for these three for tonight?’
The boy looked up sharply and flashed a nervous smile. ‘I’ll call my father,’ he muttered, and dashed inside the neighbouring building.
Melca climbed down from Storm and unstrung his bow, wrapping it in linen along with the quiver of arrows. While they waited for the stable owner he brushed at his shirt. ‘I can’t believe how creased and dirty everything is,’ he complained.
Before Ryden could respond, a stocky man with a thick ginger beard emerged and smiled at the newcomers. ‘Good afternoon gentlemen,’ he said warmly. ‘How can I help?’
‘We’d like to stable our horses for a night or two and get them a good meal,’ Ryden replied.
‘You’ve come to the right place. It be a shilling a night, they’ll be grain-fed, hayed and brushed down and have a warm place to sleep. What are their names?’
‘Storm, Rusty and Shannon,’ Ryden informed him.
‘I thought they looked familiar. I guess you’ve come from Cadmir, eh?’
Ryden swallowed hard before answering. ‘Er… yes, that’s right.’ Praying the man wouldn’t ask anything more, he changed the subject quickly. ‘Is there somewhere around here that my friend and I can stay for the night? Where would you recommend?’
‘You got three inns here, all of which have their flaws o’ course, but old Jaric’s place should suit you well enough. The food’s good and the rooms aren’t dear. It’s not far; turn left after the well and you’ll see it. It’s got an old tin helmet hanging over the door. Just keep your wits about you; there’s a lot of folk as are suspicious of newcomers at the present time.’
Ryden thanked the man and gave him three shillings before unstrapping his bags and draping them over his left shoulder. Melca followed suit, then patted Storm on the neck. ‘See you tomorrow girl; have a good rest.’
The sky was cobalt blue when they reached the inn and the orange strip along the horizon told them their timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The windows were flickering with the firelight from inside and the little tavern looked homely. It reminded Ryden of the Plough and Harrow, where he’d spent countless evenings with Silas learning how to manage his finances.
‘Don’t buy supplies unless you’ll need them this month,’ the old barkeep had told fourteen-year old Ryden. ’Ain’t no use stocking up on leather if all you ‘ave to make are pots and pans. Don’t matter what the merchant tells you; if you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Love with your heart and think with your brain. You try the other way round and you’ll end up in a tangle.’
The memory caught him by surprise and Ryden blinked rapidly, determined to hide his emotions.
The sign on the stone building in front of him read ‘The Rusted Helm,’ and the dented brown ironwork hanging above the door stood testament to the name. He pursed his lips and entered, with Melca close behind.
The room was busy and groups of people sat round tables playing cards or dice, laughing, singing and generally having a good time. A dart flew past Melca’s ear and landed in a dartboard on the wall behind him.
The crowd didn’t fall silent as they entered, so there was no call for a witty one-liner followed by a significant saunter through the centre of the throng. Other than a couple of curious glances, they arrived at the bar relatively unnoticed. They remained unnoticed for several minutes before Ryden cleared his throat and managed to catch the eye of one of the serving-girls.
She strolled over and leaned on the bar in front of him to take his order. Tearing his eyes from her impressive cleavage, he managed to stutter, ‘Do you have two rooms available for tonight?’
She turned to look at a diary that had been marked out behind her, her hips swaying as she did so, then swung back to him. Ryden swallowed. I hope she didn’t notice me checking her out.
‘Yes, we have two rooms out the back; eight pence each with breakfast included. Do you want dinner now as well?’
‘Yes please,’ they answered in unison.
‘That’ll be an extra two pence each. Name?’
‘A Smith, eh? Maybe you can teach our Balik a thing or two. He’s been making nothing but swords for weeks and he still ends up with more in his scrap bin than in his shop.’ She winked and Ryden felt his blood rising. ‘Drinks?’
‘Two beers please.’
As she bustled off to speak with the chef, a boy of their age came to take their bags through to their rooms. Melca hesitated before handing over his baggage. As the boy departed, Melca turned to Ryden. ‘We don’t know him; he might root through our stuff. What if he robs us?’
‘Relax, I’ve kept hold of our money,’ Ryden held up a small hessian sack. ‘And there’s nothing else worth taking. I think your silk shirts and leather trousers are probably safe for the time being.’
Melca scowled and said nothing. He glanced around the crowded bar-room and spotted three men leaving, so he grabbed two barstools and pulled them over quickly before anyone else could lay claim to them.
The girl returned with two full tankards and Ryden paid her, then shortly afterwards their food arrived. Two large pieces of meat pie, with vegetables and boiled potatoes covered in gravy, were placed in front of them. They ate greedily. As the stable-owner had suggested, the food was excellent. Moreover, it felt good to be surrounded by people and their hearty chatter.
As Ryden finished off the last of his pie, a tall man in rider’s clothing arrived and went straight to the bar. He pulled up a stool and ordered a drink. A number of others in the bar drew closer when they saw him and the landlord stepped out from the kitchen to join the growing crowd.
‘Ah, Dorian, back at last,’ he announced. ‘I was getting worried; I thought maybe you’d got yourself killed in the fighting.’
‘That’s sweet, Jaric,’ the newcomer said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. ‘I never knew you cared!’
‘I care about the well-being of anyone who owes me as much as you do. I should never have left your bar-tab running.’ A few of the drinkers chuckled.
‘Well I can’t afford your prices, old man,’ Dorian shot back. ‘I’ve never known anyone charge so much for a pint of dirty water.’
‘And I’ve never known anyone drink so much of it! Now come, tell us what’s happening up north. We haven’t heard anything since our boys left for Delcia and that was two weeks ago.’
Dorian took a swig of his pint, then leaned back on the bar and sighed. ‘Well a lot can happen in two weeks. Delcia was over-run on the first of the month, so by the time your men reached Poranthia there was nowhere further to go.’
A concerned muttering started but the traveller continued. ‘What’s more, I planned to stay at Cadmir last night. When I got there, tired and hungry, I found the entire village destroyed.’
Ryden’s stomach knotted and Melca almost choked on his beer. A man behind Ryden hammered his fist down on the bar.
‘It was horrible,’ Dorian went on. ‘Everyone was burned, even the women and children. The Kapps must have herded them all up like sheep. Nothing was left but a pile of charred bodies in the centre of the square.’
Ryden and Melca exchanged a look. Jaric shook his head and poured himself a beer. ‘If they won’t even spare a homestead like Cadmir, they won’t have any qualms about running through here as well. And,’ he said, taking a swig of his beer before continuing, ‘we’ve already sent all our fighters away!’
Looking around, Ryden suddenly realised that most of the men in the tavern were either white-haired or crippled. He thought back to the conversation in the woods. Two hundred fighting men had left the town. This is who remained.
Dorian spoke again. ‘Lazarus has led his army to Poranthia now, and even with the Sharbury troops they’ve less than two thousand men, trying to hold the city against ten thousand Kippers.’
‘Lazarus won’t stop as long as there’s one man still able to wield a sword.’ The man behind Ryden had a deep voice, thick with an accent he didn’t recognise. The statement was met with murmurs of agreement.
‘Have you had word from Jalapa?’ Dorian asked.
The landlord grunted. ‘They say King Rogar is determined to hold off the Kapps at all costs. But those are empty words when we’ve already lost Valihall and now Delcia. The fact is, they’re a warring nation.’ Kappland had seen three civil wars in as many decades before it established an uneasy peace five years ago. It was said that the only way King Garro had been able to stop them fighting each other was to invade Rejkland.
‘And that means everyone’s a fighter,’ another man joined in. ‘Their children learn to pick up the sword before the pen, so I’m told.’
The muttering broke off into myriad conversations and when Dorian made no further comment, the crowd began to disperse. Melca turned to Ryden and spoke under his breath. ‘So Poranthia is being attacked. What will we do now? I don’t want to get caught up in a war.’
‘We don’t have much choice. The whole country is at war.’
The man behind Ryden leaned forward. ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ he asked, in his peculiar accent.
‘I think you have me mistaken for someone else. We’re not from around here,’ Ryden stammered.
‘I know you’re not. You’re from Cadmir. Now come and have a drink with me.’