The azure sky was perfectly clear and the air was dry and still. It was only two hours after dawn but already it promised to be another extremely hot day. The sounds of the busy village street intermingled with the melody of birdsong, making Ryden’s heart lift.
Melca’s mood was less cheerful. A few days ago Cadmir was buzzing with life just like this; it seemed so much longer and yet the pain was still fresh. The anguish, the sense of injustice, the constant unanswerable questions felt like they would remain forever. Why me? Why was I spared?
When they arrived at the stables they spotted Allisad talking to the owner. Stopping in the entrance they overheard snapshots of conversation.
’I ‘ope that new saddle will suit you. It’s not of the highest quality, but has to be better’n riding any distance bareback – I’m amazed you made it here as quickly as you did.’
Melca watched Allisad hand over some coins before the owner continued. ’By the way, just afore you go, I’m intrigued about something. Of all the names you could have chosen, why Dave of all things?’
‘I think it’s quite a snappy name. Besides, he seems quite happy with it,’ Allisad replied. At this, Dave snorted contemptuously. As he did so, the two men glanced up and spotted Ryden and Melca standing at the gate.
‘Good morning lads!’ Allisad said warmly. ‘Have you decided on a course of action yet? Is it into the thick of the fray, or will you err on the side of caution and travel south with me first?’
‘We’re going to go to Jalapa, so perhaps we can travel together for a while,’ Ryden answered. Turning to the stable-keeper, he gestured to the horses. ‘Are they ready to go?’
‘They certainly are, young man,’ he replied, smiling. ‘Fed, watered, brushed down, and I dare say they’re rarin’ to go!’ He spoke a few words to the stable-hand, who fetched the three horses and began to saddle them.
When the boy was out of earshot, the man beckoned Ryden closer. ‘Some men came by last night, askin’ after a chestnut horse ridden by a boy,’ he whispered. ’Now I’m not one to be secretive, but I’ll wager they were up to no good, so I claimed ignorance, see. You be careful on your way young man, I wouldn’t want no ‘arm to come by you, is all.’
Stepping back, he took the reins for Storm, Shannon and Rusty and handed them to Ryden and Melca, who led them out into the sunshine. Allisad was already sat astride Dave, shading his eyes and looking south past the village to the hills beyond.
‘Right lads,’ he said brightly, ‘ever been to Jalapa before?’ They both shook their heads. ‘Me neither. I was planning to follow you.’ Seeing their surprised looks, he laughed loudly. ‘I’m joking with you! Come on!’ Without saying another word he spurred Dave on, leaving Ryden and Melca scrambling onto their horses to try to catch up.
The village was busy. People were walking back and forth across the main street, shopkeepers were standing outside in the morning sunshine chatting to one another and a general hubbub filled the air. Yet still Allisad galloped through the centre of everything, seemingly unaware of the crowds flinging themselves out of the way and shouting obscenities at him.
‘Slow down, you maniac!’ one young man yelled as he jumped out of Dave’s path and stumbled over an apple-cart.
‘Who taught you to ride?’ screamed an old lady who had been deep in conversation with the local priest, who clearly looked more stunned at her outburst than at the reckless stranger.
Ryden and Melca came trotting along after, apologising for Allisad’s behaviour whilst trying not to fall too far behind. Someone pelted a tomato that narrowly missed Melca and ended up hitting the already bewildered priest.
A pig ran out in front of Rusty, causing him to rear and almost dislodge Ryden from his vantage point. Clinging onto the gelding’s neck, Ryden kicked his heels and spurred the horse on through the gauntlet of livid villagers, muttering to Melca that this was not the inconspicuous departure he’d had in mind.
Once they were clear of the angry throng they slowed to a trot and Melca took a long draught from his flask. Dabbing his mouth with a kerchief, he sighed audibly. ‘Well that woke me up! I was looking forward to a leisurely ride and we end up fleeing for dear life. Where’s that cheeky sod got to, anyway?’
‘I hope you’re not referring to me,’ Allisad’s voice carried from a stand of trees just ahead of them, followed by a loud laugh.
As they drew level they saw that he’d taken off his shirt and tied it around his waist. His skin was heavily tanned and he had a large tattoo of a strange, striped catlike creature on his right bicep.
‘What took you so long?’ he continued. ‘I was starting to think you’d got lost!’
Melca answered back, affronted. ‘Well we have a bit more respect than to storm past people’s houses and shops, upsetting stalls and trampling goods. Are all Kapps this arrogant?’
‘Sadly, yes. That’s why I’ve disowned them. Now I can find myself a nice polite Rejk woman to settle down with and we will both spend the rest of our lives minding our own business.’
He set out in a trot and Ryden and Melca levelled alongside him.
‘Seriously though,’ Ryden said suddenly, ‘why have you decided to leave the Kapp army for the Rejk army? It doesn’t make any sense.’
’I’ve been asking myself the same question for the last four days. I guess I’ve realised that most soldiers don’t question what they’re fighting for; I didn’t want to fall into that trap and become another sheep following the flock.
‘Conquest is one thing but this has gone way beyond that. I’ve always known Garro to be a good king, wise and kind. Over the last three years he has appeared in public less and less and all we’ve heard from the palace are increasingly bizarre and outrageous new laws, supposedly from the king. We’ve no proof they’ve come from him; for all we know he could have died months ago.’
‘That couldn’t have happened though; otherwise everyone would know about it.’ Ryden pointed out. ‘Anyway, there would have been a full coronation for his heir as well – he has a son doesn’t he?’
Allisad nodded. ‘His son, Taliesen, is twelve. I have no doubt he could be a good king in ten years, even five if necessary, but let us hope he is not called upon before that. However, they say Garro is very ill, hence his seclusion. I think his brain may be weakening and Lazarus is taking advantage of that infirmity.’
‘What’s wrong with him then?’ Melca pitched in. ‘Surely if he was mad then Taliesen would already be king?’
‘Kappland has been an unhappy place in recent times. A few months ago, it was decreed that every boy, when he comes of age at sixteen, has to cut off a finger to swear fealty to king and country. Then a few weeks ago, a law was passed that on the king’s birthday each year, one sheep from every flock has to be taken out to sea and thrown overboard; sacrificed to the Author of All Things to grant him good health in the year ahead. Can you think of anything more ridiculous?’
The horses had reached a canter now, and Ryden began to relax into the stride. He glanced over at Melca, who also looked a lot more comfortable on the horse than he had done a mere two days earlier. He was sitting forward in the saddle, fascinated with Allisad’s summary of the current political climate.
‘Why hasn’t anything been done then?’ he interjected.
’Who can say? My view is that Lazarus is rated so highly that all eyes have turned to him for guidance, which is the perfect situation for him. I have no doubt he is setting his own strategy for this war because when he claims to send word to Garro, he returns with answers much sooner than can be possible considering the distance to Rektor.
‘Besides, I know how the general’s mind works. I was close to him for some time and I have seen the darker side of him. He is a cold, calculating man who holds no regard for human life. He leaves nothing but misery and destruction in his wake and I refuse to sit by and allow him to corrupt Rejkland in the same way that he is corrupting Kappland. That is why I want to oppose him.’
Ryden frowned, trying to understand the complexities of a world seemingly wracked with madness. ‘So if he is so evil, why do people still follow him? Why don’t they just put someone normal in charge to sort it all out?’
‘Because they’re fuelled by the thrill of conquest,’ came the reply. ‘They are unbeaten and feel indestructible. And if this man can lead them to such victory, they can excuse his eccentricities. Besides, most of the folk back home believe that the success in battle is thanks to Lazarus, whereas the bizarre domestic situation has come from the king. I don’t hold to that belief; I think he has cleverly and meticulously constructed this charade. Of course, this is all mere speculation; I don’t have any evidence to back up these claims.’
The trio fell silent briefly, reflecting on the conversation. After a pause, Melca spoke.
‘Sounds like a silly situation. The king isn’t well and the person looking after everything is mad. And no one will stop him because he’s succeeding in conquering a different country, even though they have to cut off their fingers and drown their livestock.’
‘When you put it like that, the answer seems obvious. But not everyone has the insight that I do. And as I am now considered a traitor, my word would be worth less than muck in Rektor.’
‘Hopefully it will be worth more in Jalapa,’ Ryden added astutely.
John had never been to Rektor. Although he had lived in Kappland for all of his eleven years, his parents had always been too busy to take him anywhere. Since their deaths, he had asked his grandfather to take him on several occasions and always got the same response.
‘John, we live in Khaviz; one of the oldest cities in the known world. A place steeped in history and culture. Rektor is nothing but a crowded, stinking hole seething with criminals, outcasts and lowlifes. Why anyone would want to go there is a mystery.’
But John did. He wanted to see Rektor Castle and watch the gladiators in the Mercury Arena. He wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in the museums and ruined buildings that Balenor showed to him. Although he cared greatly for the old man, he found his time in the small three-roomed house very dull and uninspiring.
Not so for his grandfather. Over the years, Balenor had surrounded himself with a vast array of peculiar artefacts and antiques, the uses of which had been lost after the fall of the Ancients, 208 years previously. John cast his eyes around the jumbled piles of books, papers and devices in the small, dingy room.
Every shelf, every surface was covered, many of which were also now thick with dust. Even the floor had become a storage space, with barely enough room for someone to pick their way through to the bedroom at the back of the house, which was in an equally squalid state.
John sighed. Where his grandfather lay, stretched across the sofa, he seemed a part of the clutter; open books were resting over his legs and stomach and his breakfast plate was still balanced precariously on his right knee. The man was of medium height and well-built, not overweight but starting to thicken around the waist as he became less active in his retirement. He had white hair and thick dark brows, and his face was lined with an equal share of joys and sorrows from his sixty-two years.
‘I’m bored, Gramps,’ John moaned. ‘There’s nothing to do.’
‘Why don’t you go out and play with your friends, John?’ His voice was rich and warm, and he rolled each word off his tongue with the strong accent of someone who has spent his whole life in the same town. ‘There are plenty of things you can do and it’s a lovely day out there.’ He said this without moving or looking up from his book, and the windows in the room were so small and grimy that his weather forecast could not have been based on anything more than a lucky guess.
‘I don’t have any friends; none of the other kids like me.’
‘Don’t be silly, why wouldn’t they like you? You’re a great kid.’
John was a slim boy, tall for his age, with short brown hair. All in all he was pretty normal, but what he didn’t want to explain to his grandfather was that he was picked on because of the threadbare clothes he wore. Nor was he able to articulate that since he moved here to live with his grandfather eighteen months ago, he had been treated with suspicion because he lived with ‘weird old metal-face.’
This nickname had developed because recently Balenor had taken to wearing a metal frame over his ears and nose that supported a window of glass in front of each eye. He called them spectickles and claimed he could see better when he wore them. John thought this was nonsense because he had tried them once and instead of improving his vision, they had made it so blurry he could barely see enough to walk in a straight line.
Opting for an easy excuse, John said, ‘I don’t feel like going out, there’s nothing to do there either.’
‘All right then,’ Balenor conceded, putting his book to one side. ‘Let’s see what we can find to do.’ He proceeded to unload himself of the various objects adorning him and then picked up a cluster of highly polished black stones from a small table at one side of the room. He placed them on the dining table and then sat himself down in front of them, having first lifted a stack of clothes from the chair and dumped them unceremoniously on the sofa he had just vacated.
He gestured to his grandson to sit opposite him. ‘Now watch carefully,’ he said, placing one of the stones in the centre of the table. Holding a hand over the stone, about six inches above the table, he began to move his hand sideways. As he did so, the stone beneath it began to slide gracefully across the table, always remaining beneath his hand.
‘You’ve got a piece of string there!’ John accused, then waved his hand between his grandfather’s hand and the table and found that they weren’t connected. ‘How does it work then?’ he demanded.
‘It’s all done with mind control,’ Balenor explained. ‘Clear your mind and focus on nothing but the stone, then imagine it moving left and right and use your hand to focus your thoughts. Try it.’ Balenor withdrew his hand and allowed John to try to replicate the feat. After a couple of failed attempts, the boy succeeded in moving it haltingly around the surface of the table. Grinning, John called out, ‘Look Gramps, I’m doing it!’
‘Excellent! Now let me show you what other tricks you can do with these stones.’ He put the stone in the centre of the table and placed another directly next to it, then instructed John to move the first one away without touching the second stone. Each time John tried to pick up the stone or slide it away, the other stone stuck to it as though they were glued together. Perplexed, he tried pulling the stone away very slowly, and when that failed he tried to remove it very quickly, but always with the same outcome.
Balenor chuckled. ’Quite tricky little things, aren’t they! I don’t think you’ll be able to separate them. They are not actually stones at all; they are a special type of metal called magnets. They will not only stick to each other but to anything made of iron or steel. Watch this.’ He removed his spectickles and placed them on the table, then holding one of the magnets firmly between his thumb and forefinger he touched it on the eye-glasses and half-lifted them off the table. John’s eyes shone with excitement.
‘They also keep that bond through other objects,’ Balenor explained, and demonstrated by holding two stones either side of a book cover, then moving one stone around by controlling the other. ‘They will even work through something as thick as a table!’ He placed one stone in the centre of the table and showed John the first trick once again. This time John could see that whilst he was holding his left hand over the stone, his right hand was controlling the stone under the table.
‘So it wasn’t mind control at all?’ John asked, his disappointment showing in his voice.
‘I’m afraid not. But it is still a valuable tool. Just think of the possibilities!’
‘I suppose so,’ John sighed.
As the day wore on, Ryden found himself warming to the frank and forthright stranger that had befriended them. Arrogant though he was, Allisad was amiable and jovial and once Ryden had grown accustomed to his strange sense of humour, he found the hours passed quickly. However, his direct approach left no stone unturned as he quizzed the boys about their lives and their backgrounds.
‘So,’ he said suddenly at one point, after a lull in conversation, ‘tell me about Cadmir.’
This caught Ryden off-guard and he said quickly, ‘There’s nothing to tell,’ in an attempt to stop the conversation dead. But Allisad would not be deterred.
‘Of course there is. You’ve lived there all your life, your entire memory is made up of Cadmir and very little else, I shouldn’t wonder. What you mean to say is that you don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Fine,’ Ryden replied, relieved that Allisad had recognised his discomfort. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Well that’s too bad, because I do.’ His eyes twinkled. ‘Look, I know it holds painful memories for you but that doesn’t mean you should erase the good ones as well. The only way Cadmir will continue to live on is through the two of you. And pretending it never existed will make it harder to deal with, not easier. Believe me, the sooner you acknowledge what happened, the sooner you can move on.’
And he was right. For the next hour, both Melca and Ryden relived some of their favourite memories, about friends and family, about traditions and culture and about their childhoods. Allisad listened intently, rarely interrupting them. After Ryden had spoken quite poignantly about his last memory of his father, Allisad spoke again.
‘You have both lost a great deal. But no doubt your families are looking proudly down at you from their place in the heavens. And did you have sweethearts as well?’
The question hit Melca like a fist. Thoughts of Liza were ever-present at the back of his mind, but resurfaced instantly at the mention of loved ones. Not wanting to speak of her, he said nothing, instead taking a long swig from the flask by his side. Ryden mouthed to Allisad that he had lost his fiancée and Melca pretended not to hear as Allisad conveyed his condolences.
Changing the subject, Ryden suggested they stop for a while to have something to eat and give the horses a rest. They rode on for twenty minutes before coming upon a small stream deep enough and wide enough for the horses to drink from comfortably.
Having removed Dave’s saddle and given him a nosebag, Allisad went for a stroll among the many varieties of trees clustered along the banks. Ryden drew his sword and began wielding it in slow motion, moving from one position to the next, then closing his eyes and repeating the process.
‘Ry.’ Melca waited for a response. When he didn’t receive one he called again. ‘Ry!’
Ryden opened his eyes and stopped mid-swing, looking at his friend. ‘I’m concerned,’ Melca continued. ‘What do you think about Allisad? What do you think he wants?’
‘What do you mean?’ Ryden asked, a frown furrowing his brow.
‘I mean, why do you think he’s going to Jalapa? And what does he want with us?’
‘I don’t know if I follow you, Mel. He wants to try to stop General Lazarus. And we’re going with him for company and for direction. Why do you ask?’
‘What if he’s not who he says he is, Ry? What if he’s not a traitor at all? What if he’s actually a spy, working for Lazarus? They do that sort of thing in wartime you know; my dad said. They can be very underhanded.’
‘Mel, what are you worried about? He’s a nice guy. He’s been friendly to us, hasn’t he? He invited us to come with him; he took pity on us because of what we’ve been through.’
‘What if there’s an ulterior motive?’ Melca persisted. ‘What if we’re a part of his plan?’
‘Now you really are being paranoid. Why would the grand master plan of the Kappish general involve two country boys from a little village in Rejkland?’
As he spoke, Allisad came into sight, walking along the bank of the stream trailing a stick in the water.
‘Just be careful, that’s all,’ Melca whispered, then quickly turned away and began to string his bow for some archery practice before they set off again. Ryden resumed his own exercise, troubled by what Melca had said.
As Allisad entered the clearing, he laughed suddenly. Ryden looked up, startled.
‘Looks like Dave’s still hungry!’ he said, pointing. His horse was snapping at a couple of flies that were buzzing around his head. Ryden smiled briefly and then closed his eyes, returning to his motions.
‘That’s an unusual sword.’ Allisad said. ‘Where did you get it?’
Stopping his routine, Ryden looked into his eyes, trying to gauge the man’s opinion. When he was unable to, he said quietly, ‘I made it.’
’You made it? Of course, I forgot you were a smith. It’s very unique; did you model it on anything?’
‘Not really, just had some ideas from some of my father’s more ornate pieces. It’s not that good, really, but it seems to handle quite well.’
Allisad stretched out a hand. ‘May I?’
Ryden hesitated, thinking on what Melca had said, then conceded. As he held the sword out, hilt first, Allisad took hold of it and immediately swung it at lightning speed, inches from Ryden’s chest. Ryden jumped back, immediately panicked, but Allisad continued almost unaware of the boy’s reaction.
Ryden quickly realised that he was just hefting the blade for weight and to judge for himself how it handled. A couple of minutes passed, until satisfied, Allisad swung the sword around so the blade pointed behind him and passed the hilt back to Ryden, smiling.
‘You are a skilled smith for your age, Ryden. I have wielded a great many swords in my time and few of this size are as well balanced. Or as lightweight, for that matter. Tell me, what metal did you use for the blade?’
‘In honesty Allisad, I don’t know. It was a piece that my father had in the house when he died, I merely put it to use.’
‘Please, just call me Alli; you sound like my mother. It’s a good sword. What name have you given it?’
‘Name? Why would I give it a name? It is merely a sword.’
‘All the best warriors name their weapons, my friend. To be a great swordsman you need to have a bond with your sword, like an understanding between friends. It is easier for you to build that bond if you personify it and give it character.’
‘It’s not something I had even considered. What name would you suggest then?’
‘Trust me, you do not want to ask that advice of someone who names his horse Dave. Give it some thought; don’t just decide on the spot. Wait awhile and see what you feel suits best.’
Ryden turned the sword over in his hands thoughtfully, running his fingers over the hilt.
‘It seems funny that you both carry swords, you know,’ Allisad observed. Ryden looked up and raised an eyebrow quizzically, and Allisad continued. ‘I’ve spent years in the army, and most men carry axes or poleaxes. I think partly because swords take more skill to use, but also because very few men, save for officers, own a sword. But it’s easier for you, Ry. You can forge your own and it doesn’t cost you a penny!’
‘Unfortunately, it’s probably not worth a penny either!’ Ryden said, laughing. He sheathed his sword and as he did so Melca entered the clearing carrying a rabbit and a rat, both of which still had arrows jutting from them.
‘Either of you gossipers hungry?’ he asked, grinning.
‘I wouldn’t mind some rabbit but I won’t eat rat!’ Allisad replied. ‘Why did you shoot that?’
‘I don’t like rats; they spread disease,’ Melca answered. He eyed Allisad for a long time and then added, ‘that’s what I do to creatures I don’t trust.’
When the three travellers had eaten a small meal of rabbit stew with vegetables and some wholegrain bread, they set about preparing their horses for the onward journey. Even though Melca had been on the road for a few days now, he was uneasy around Storm as he still felt very inexperienced in looking after her.
Riding her almost seemed the easy part now he was used to being in the saddle but knowing how and when to feed and water her, what to do when she was agitated, understanding her needs, was all completely new to him. This is why he found himself standing next to her, stroking her neck and talking in a low voice, whilst he observed Ryden and Allisad tend to their own steeds.
He didn’t want to ask Ryden for his help in front of Allisad, because he didn’t want to show his ignorance. Instead he watched as his companions brushed down their horses’ flanks and adjusted their saddles, then he mimicked their actions as best he could. He made a mental note to ask Ryden’s advice when they were able to speak alone.
Once this was done, Allisad spread out a map on the ground and invited Ryden to read it with him. Melca walked over and hovered behind them, listening to the conversation.
‘This is where we are at present,’ Allisad said, pointing to a spot on the map. ‘Somewhere around here, at any rate, given that we’ve travelled south from Sharbury for the last four hours. Assuming we ride steadily through tomorrow and Saturday, I expect we’ll arrive in Jalapa on Sunday.’
‘I haven’t travelled this far before, Alli, nor have I ever wished to until now,’ Ryden admitted. ‘Is it true that the king lives in a house as big as a field, with servants and guards in every room?’
Allisad chuckled. ‘You’re probably not far from the truth there, Ryden, but remember I have never been to Jalapa before either. I do, however, know how King Garro lives and his castle in Rektor is indeed an impressive sight.’
‘I can’t wait to meet King Rogar,’ Melca chipped in. ‘I remember once when Kirk returned from one of his trips, he said he’d seen the king addressing the crowds on a subject of great importance. He said he had never seen so many people in one place at one time but Rogar captured their attention and they all stood in rapt silence so every man, woman and child could hear what was being said.’
‘He is certainly a charismatic leader, from what I have heard,’ Allisad replied, ‘but unfortunately it takes more than charisma to win a war and he has not seen any successes on the battlefield since this campaign began. It will be interesting to see how he plans to overcome the Kappish invasion force.’
Standing up, Allisad rolled the map into a tight cylinder and strapped it to Dave’s load, just above the left saddlebag. Mounting quickly, he waited for Ryden and Melca to follow suit. Once they had, he moved off southwards again at an easy pace, humming softly under his breath.
As they rode, Allisad thought carefully about what he planned to do. In order to secure his own future he needed the war to end. He also needed to be on the winning side once it did. This posed a number of problems. Firstly, he would need to show King Rogar that he was truly opposed to Lazarus, which in itself may prove to be no mean feat. Even if he was successful in this, he also needed the demoralised Rejk army to beat an enemy that outnumbered them several times over.
As he considered his plight, another possibility occurred to him. If he could jeopardise the Rejk defence sufficiently to secure victory for Kappland, he could win back the support and respect of his countrymen and, more importantly, of General Lazarus. Assuming, for example, he could assassinate General Paglaia, or King Rogar himself, their defences would go to pieces and he could return to Rektor a hero.
As he wrestled with his conscience it occurred to him that he didn’t know which course of action would be morally right. Should he be loyal to his king and country, whom he had sworn allegiance to, or should he aim to defeat Kappland, knowing as he did that Lazarus himself was intrinsically a malicious, cold-hearted killer?
The answer was not clear. Either way, he needed to get to Jalapa. In a few days his decision would be made and when it was, the fate of the Masnian continent would depend on it.