As Allisad sat down, he looked across the table at the two nervous boys pulling up chairs in front of him. The chubby blond one was talking nineteen to the dozen about the man at the stables thinking they were from Cadmir when in fact they weren’t and how he must have been misinformed and probably had them confused with someone else. The tall, dark-haired one said nothing but eyed Allisad warily.
When Melca had finished, Allisad spoke quietly. ‘My name is Allisad; I used to be in the Kappish army…’ Before he could say any more, Ryden jumped up and made as if to draw his sword.
’SIT DOWN LAD! I am not here to cause trouble and if both you and I want to keep a low profile you had better keep your sword sheathed and listen to what I have to say.
’I was in the Kappish army, but left under… unpleasant circumstances. Not to put too fine a point on it, they want me dead. I tell you this because, sadly, I am also aware of the fate of Cadmir. It is apparent you are both strangers here and given your reactions when Cadmir was mentioned it is clear this was not news to you.
‘However you boys have the upper hand on me, because you are in your home country with no real need to be secretive. I, however, am not safe here or in Kappland.’
‘So why are you telling us all this?’ Ryden asked. ‘What do you want from us? And what is to stop us announcing to everyone here who you are?’
‘So many questions. Firstly, understand that I am not a threat to your country, or to you. I am here to seek refuge, therefore it will in fact work to my advantage if Rejkland wins the war and I can remain here, rather than having to flee further south. As to why I am talking to you, I honestly couldn’t say. But I sympathise with you; I have seen many atrocities of war and the survivors are sometimes the ones who suffer most.’
Melca, who had been silent since his initial protestations, once again spoke up. ‘Of course you’ve seen many atrocities, you’re a soldier. You’ve probably caused them all! How many people have you killed? How many lives have you ruined?’
’Too many, and for that I am ashamed. But I do not approve of meaningless slaughter and that is why I wish to aid King Rogar in defeating General Lazarus.
‘So you are a traitor,’ Ryden observed. ‘Now I understand why they want you dead.’
’You do not understand,’ Allisad snapped, then his voice softened. ’And I suppose I cannot expect you to. But in brief, I live to serve King Garro. However his mind has gone and it is not his orders but the orders of General Lazarus that the army now unwittingly follows. I would then argue that Lazarus is the traitor and I am the patriot.
‘But this is all just semantics; every man will have his own theories and judgements. I act on my own motives and at present I intend to travel to Jalapa, join the Rejk forces and defend the country, if indeed they will have me. Now enough about me, tell me about yourselves.’
‘What is to tell?’ Ryden answered. ‘We lived peacefully in Cadmir until three days ago, when we returned from a fishing trip to find the village on fire and our friends and families dead or dying. You said earlier that we don’t understand your situation; well I doubt very much whether you can even begin to comprehend what we have been through.’
‘You make a valid point. I cannot relate to what you have been through and would not wish to.’ Allisad sat back and closed his eyes, lost in thought. For a moment it looked as though he had fallen asleep, then slowly his eyes opened as he spoke again. ‘Just to hear your story is truly chilling. What do you intend to do now?’
‘Find whoever’s responsible and make them rue the day!’ Melca answered. Allisad’s eyes widened when he heard this but he regained his composure and glanced across to Ryden to see if the same lust for revenge was reflected in his face. This boy, however, was much harder to read. His mouth was set in grim determination but whether it was for his sake or his friend’s that they had settled on this course of action, Allisad couldn’t tell. He spoke again.
‘Whilst I can see how important this is to you, you must know it will not be easy. The men responsible for the sacking of Cadmir are part of the army, who will undoubtedly now be in the front line attacking Poranthia. You won’t be able to reach them without enrolling in the Rejk army and facing them in a pitched battle, thus becoming embroiled in the whole campaign.’
Melca faltered. In truth he had suspected this but hadn’t wanted to believe it. The thought of becoming a soldier and fighting in a war terrified him but he saw no other way to get to these men. He didn’t even know how he would identify them; he had seen them from a distance only and couldn’t be sure that he would recognise them.
‘We don’t yet have a strategy to find them,’ Ryden said, reading his friend’s mind, ‘but we will. We’ll find a way to get our revenge.’
‘And then what?’ the Kapp asked.
‘Who knows? Find somewhere nice to live and then grow old, die, decompose… the usual I guess.’ Both Melca and Allisad laughed at this, finally relieving the awkward tension that had surrounded the conversation.
‘Well look,’ said Allisad, ‘I know you’re probably eager to rush headlong into battle in Poranthia but I am planning to ride to Jalapa in the morning and if you would care to join me then I would appreciate the company. I’m sure the war will still be there when you get back.’
‘Thank you for the offer but we have yet to make our plans,’ Ryden replied.
‘Of course. I will be leaving at nine o’clock if you change your mind. By the way, I didn’t catch your names.’
‘A baker and a smith, eh? I have never chosen a surname for myself, though I hear it’s all the rage now. I don’t know what would suit best. Given recent events, I guess Allisad Renegade would be most appropriate, or Allisad the Lost. Anyway, fare well in your quest and perhaps our paths will cross in the future.’
He drained his glass and as he stood to leave Melca extended his arm to shake hands. Allisad gripped him by the forearm and patted his shoulder, grinning at the expression on Melca’s face. ‘This is the warrior’s handshake, Melca, don’t look so surprised!’ He turned to Ryden and gave the same gesture, each holding the other’s arm just above the wrist. Then he walked away, chuckling to himself.
Once he had gone, Melca turned to Ryden, eager to hear his thoughts on the encounter.
‘Well that will make things difficult,’ Ryden said. ‘If this man is to be believed, we’ve got less chance of catching those men on their own than we have of bumping into King Rogar on the way to the privy.’
‘Even kings have to visit the throne sometimes,’ Melca added helpfully.
As they sat discussing what options lay ahead of them, Ryden heard a ruckus and looked up to see the men from the woods bursting through the door. They looked filthy and exhausted and the man he had struck was hobbling hard, a blood-soaked rag tied tightly around his thigh. Without a moment’s hesitation, Ryden grabbed Melca’s arm and pulled him towards the corridor at the rear of the tavern, pointing to the new arrivals and gesturing for him to be silent.
Immediately the men broke into animated conversation about the fight in the woods, which described how heavily outnumbered they were and how they still fought on to defend the village until the attackers (who they were now claiming to be scouts from Kappland) were forced to flee.
An interesting tale, Melca thought as he tried to sneak around the bar to the hallway that led to the bedrooms. Ryden disappeared around the corner but just as Melca made to follow him, a strong hand clasped around his elbow.
He swung round to find himself eye-to-eye with the heavy-set landlord, Jaric. ‘Everything all right sir?’ the man asked, his tone suggesting that the words ‘going somewhere?’ might have been more appropriate.
‘Er, yes, fine thank you. Just, er, going off to bed, thought I should get an early night, I’ve got an early start tomorrow…’
As he spoke, his eyes were continually drawn to the group of men now attracting a crowd in the centre of the room. They shouldn’t recognise him, of course, but one of them may have caught a glimpse of him and he didn’t want to take that risk.
‘Friends of yours, are they?’ Jaric asked, picking up on his furtive glances. ‘Said they fought some strangers on the road; some spies from Kappland. You can’t be too careful these days. By the way, where did you say you were from?’
As he spoke, the serving-girl from earlier interrupted them. ‘Come on Jaric, he’s far too young to be a spy. And besides, that lot are always picking fights with people passing through; it’s bad for business. It’s about time someone put them in their place.’
The landlord shrugged and walked away. The girl turned to Melca and winked. ’Look, I don’t know if you had anything to do with those guys but if so then you won’t have anything to worry about here, as long as you stay out of the way tonight.
‘Be careful if you’re planning to stay in Sharbury though, because word gets round fast and if they recognise you then all hell could break loose.’ She smiled and winked again before striding back through the bar and back to work.
Melca’s eyes followed her for a few seconds and he felt a wave of desire as he watched her hips sway with every step. He shook himself and went down the corridor to his room.
The room was small but not cramped and it had a warm feeling about it. A single bed was against one wall, opposite which was a small desk where an oil lamp burned brightly. Melca sat down on the end of the bed and sighed. It had been a long day. He saw his bags had been placed in the corner and didn’t appear to have been tampered with at all.
Just as he kicked off his shoes there came a knock at the door. It was Ryden, who was clearly just as exhausted from the day’s events. Plonking himself down on the other end of Melca’s bed, he leaned back on his elbows and closed his eyes for a few moments, assessing the current situation.
‘You know what Mel? I don’t think we can get away from this war. If we don’t go to Poranthia and fight, then no matter where we go in Rejkland it will catch us eventually.’
‘Unless King Rogar defeats the Kapps, then we’ll be all right won’t we?’
‘Yeah but you heard the man at the bar earlier, saying they’re outnumbered five to one in Poranthia. And if they win there, Lazarus probably has more men back in Kappland. Maybe we should sign up to the army. That’s where we’ll find revenge for Cadmir; on the field of battle.’
‘Maybe. But not in Poranthia. Not if the odds are stacked against them. Going to war is bad enough but if there’s no other choice then let’s at least give ourselves a fighting chance.’
‘I agree. I think we should go to Jalapa – that will have more fighting men than anywhere else in the country because everyone will be rallying under the king’s banner.’
‘It’s also fortified. I remember Liza’s dad telling us about it after one of his trips, how impressed he was with the city walls…’ Melca trailed off. He had barely spoken about his fiancée since the fire and it was still extremely painful for him to think about her.
‘I say we go tomorrow. I don’t want to hang around here for too long, not after what happened in the forest. We can go with Allisad if you like; he seemed nice enough and at least he’ll know the way.’ But Ryden’s words were lost on Melca, who was now staring listlessly into the flickering orange flame of the oil lamp, clearly in a world of his own.
Ryden sat for a moment longer, then rose silently from the bed and returned to his own room, leaving Melca to his thoughts.
When the morning came, Ryden was woken by bright sunlight streaming through the narrow window onto his face. He took a moment to remind himself where he was, then sat upright and stretched. He had slept soundly throughout the night, exhausted from sleeping rough the night before, and now felt a lot more refreshed.
Getting dressed slowly, Ryden whistled to himself as he sorted through his bag. Perhaps life on the open road would suit him. He could travel from town to town, trading goods and information. Staying independent, not getting involved in local politics, possibly even avoiding the war completely.
Another part of him said that settling down in a quiet village somewhere, away from everything, would be just as desirable. But then what would happen when the Kapps reached him? Another village destroyed, another set of friends lost. Perhaps he could keep himself hidden but he couldn’t hide a whole village.
And what would Melca do? His childhood friend was extremely dear to him but recently he had been consumed with thoughts of revenge. He didn’t smile as often, his mood was more sour and sombre. And Ryden feared that he might even now be contemplating suicide again.
As soon as the thought struck him, he dropped his bag and bolted out of the room and down the hall to check on the young baker. When he reached the door he peered into the room to see Melca balled up under the blankets, snoring gently. Satisfied that he was asleep, Ryden tiptoed out again and made his way to the main lounge bar.
The room was large and broad oak beams supported the high ceiling and decorated the fireplace. A small fire burned in the grate but with only two or three tongues of flame licking at the dry wood it was clear that it hadn’t been long lit. The room was still chilly and Ryden shivered.
As he cast his eyes around the room he was pleased to find it empty except for one of the serving-girls, a petite girl with mousy brown hair who was polishing tables. As he entered she glanced up and then headed towards the bar to fetch him a drink. ‘Would you like some ale sir?’ she asked in a small voice, smiling softly.
‘Not at this time in the morning!’ Ryden replied, surprised at the offer. ‘I’d like some breakfast though, if I may? In fact, let’s make that two; my friend will be awake shortly. And perhaps a hot cup of Deria, if it’s not too much trouble?’
‘Of course,’ she replied, and went out into the back room to speak to the chef. Ryden pulled up a chair at the nearest table and a few moments later the girl returned with the kettle to make his drink. ‘Did you sleep all right? There was a bit of a fracas, I hope it didn’t keep you awake?’
“I don’t think anything short of an earthquake could have kept me awake last night,’ Ryden joked. ‘What was the trouble about?’
‘Well, three of the local men had had a fight in the woods last night and two of them were badly injured. They said it was a group of Kapps that they chased away but then started asking about strangers here and then someone said you two were here and they hadn’t seen you before, but then Jaric said the two of you were no trouble and that you’d come from the south at any rate and they left it at that.’
The girl spoke at a rate of knots, but Ryden was interested in what she had to say, so he slowed her down. ‘Hang on, there were three of them you said?’
’That’s right. Well no, they said there were four of them but one of them died in the woods. He got an arrow in his side that went into his lung. Died for king and country, that’s what his friends said. Anyway they were shouting and kicking off and in the end Jaric had to throw them out; just told ‘em to go sleep it off and hello love, do you want some breakfast because it’s just cooking now?’
Ryden turned round to see Melca standing in the doorway, white as a sheet. It didn’t take much to realise that he had heard most of what had been said. In a daze, Melca walked over to where his friend sat and fell into the chair opposite.
‘I’ll go and check on your food,’ the girl said, and disappeared from view.
‘Are you all right?’ Ryden asked quietly.
‘I killed someone Ry.’
‘If you hadn’t done then he’d have killed me; I’m extremely grateful to you.’
‘He probably had a wife and kids waiting at home for him, now they’ll grow up without a dad and it’s all my fault.’
‘Look, you had to make a snap decision and you saved my life because of it. There was nothing else you could have done.’
As he spoke, the burly landlord came out of the kitchen with two large plates of food. They were piled high with eggs, bacon, sausages and black pudding, and smelt divine. He placed them on the table in front of the boys, then instead of walking away he picked up a chair, swung it round so it faced the wall and sat astride it, resting his arms on the chair-back.
Ryden and Melca looked up, anxious about the appearance of this new companion. After a pause, Jaric spoke.
‘Well boys, you’ve certainly made your presence felt here.’ He paused, then when neither of them spoke he continued. ’Look, I don’t know who you are or where you’ve come from. What I do know is that last night you killed a local man, and unbeknownst to me I took you into my house, fed you and protected you. And now I want to know what’s going on.
‘I don’t think you’re from Kappland,’ he continued, ‘I highly doubt that you are spies and you’re certainly not hardened warriors. So the truth please; what happened last night?’
Seeing that a lie would probably cause more problems than just being honest, Ryden answered truthfully. ‘We are the sole survivors of the pillage of Cadmir. We rode here for asylum but on the road four men tried to steal our horses. They attacked us, so we fought them off and came here. That’s all there is to it.’
Jaric watched the pair of them closely, his eyes flitting from one face to the other, trying to read them. Satisfied that they were telling the truth he nodded. ‘Those men are renowned for their violence towards travellers, so I do not doubt you. You must be good with those weapons to fight off four men, all of whom are older and more experienced than yourselves.’ He paused for thought.
‘And survivors from Cadmir,’ he went on. ‘That is a sorry tale indeed. You must be suffering greatly. Nevertheless you cannot remain here; I cannot and would not protect you from the townspeople.’
‘That’s fine, we’re leaving anyway,’ Melca shot back. We’ll pay you and then go, just let us finish our breakfast first.’ Ryden sat up, taken aback by his friend’s assertiveness. Jaric just smiled.
‘Of course gentlemen; I won’t detain you any longer.’ He stood and began to walk away, then turned back. ‘I admire your spirit. Let me know what you need for your onward journey and I will be sure to help where I can.’ He disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Ryden and Melca alone with their thoughts.
The boys finished their breakfast in silence and then returned to their rooms to collect their bags. Melca’s head was still spinning as he grappled with the implications of what he had heard. He was a killer, a murderer. He had taken another man’s life. The devastating truth seemed completely alien to him and he struggled to come to terms with it.
He felt that in the last hour he had gone from being a victim of grief to being the cause of it and yet rather than feeling empowered, he felt more trapped than he had ever been before. He would never escape the knowledge of what he had done.
Having dressed and packed his bags, he went back to the lounge bar to wait for Ryden, who reappeared after a couple of minutes, dressed in brown trews and a green tunic with his bags slung haphazardly over his shoulders. His riding boots, made with a raised heel, added to his already considerable height and made it impossible for him to enter the room without ducking under the low beam of the doorframe.
He cracked a smile when he saw Melca. ‘You’re dressed well, for a long journey on horseback!’
Melca looked down at his outfit. He had spent some time choosing what to wear, and had decided on a pair of crisp black trousers and a beige leather jerkin. After all, if they were travelling to Jalapa he may see the king and he was determined to make a good first impression. ‘What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?’ he demanded.
‘Nothing’s wrong with it Mel, you look very nice. But before we’ve covered five miles those trousers will be as creased as anything and covered in dust from the knee down. And as for the jerkin, well I was hot riding with just a shirt on yesterday! In thick leather like that you’ll probably cook like a pig on a spit!’
Melca’s face dropped. ‘I should get changed I guess. Perhaps if I wear the red corded trousers with the cream shirt…’
‘It’s too late now Mel, we’ll need to go straight to the stables if we’re to catch Allisad before he sets off. I’m sure you’ll be fine; I was only teasing you. Come on.’
Ryden settled his bill with Jaric, who handed them both small parcels of dried beef, bread and cheese and a flask each for the journey. Thanking him, the boys left the inn and made their way to the stables.