Things had gone from bad to worse for Paldar since Allisad had left the army. He was the youngest member of Hawk squadron and had been the butt of endless jokes ever since he joined; but at least Allisad had sympathised. The rest of his peers considered him weak and cowardly and that view was now reinforced by the new squad leader.
Standing at five foot six, his smooth skin and lack of facial hair did nothing to help his reputation and no matter how hard he trained he was often unable to keep up with the others during exercise. Not for the first time, he was regretting ever signing up to the army.
He swore and kicked a clump of toadstools that were growing in front of the log where he sat. Why is it always me? Why can’t the sergeants pick on Cory or Benson or one of the others for a change?
He had yet again been humiliated by one of the officers, this time for coming in last place in a running race. He had then been ordered to perform one hundred squat-thrusts in front of the rest of the platoon, giving up at thirty-six when his legs collapsed under him, leaving him panting in the mud.
Now, with some extremely precious time to himself, he had come here to be alone. He liked it here. It was nothing more than a small cluster of trees, several hundred yards from where the last row of Kappish tents was pitched and a few hundred yards further from the town of Poranthia. However that short distance gave him enough freedom to act without fear of ridicule, and was secluded enough that he was unlikely to be disturbed.
He leaned his head back to rest on the tree behind him and let out a long breath. One day this whole horrible war would be over and he could be his own man again. What he would do, he didn’t yet know. Not return home, that was for sure. The only reason he had signed up was because no one in his hometown paid him any respect or took him seriously. He thought that by signing up he could prove himself.
Fat chance of that, he chided himself. I’m singled out even more here than I was at home and at least there I didn’t have to endure such unbearable physical and mental trials. He ran a hand through his tousled brown hair, finding a clump of mud and yanking it viciously.
His eyes were red-rimmed where he had been on the verge of crying, which combined with the tired bags underneath his eyes made him look decidedly unwell. His face was still smeared with mud and only his teeth, which he took great care of, still gleamed white and clean. He thanked the Author that his mother couldn’t see him like this.
He’d considered leaving the army on several occasions; just packing his bags and sneaking away one night, never to return, however he knew that deserters were to be found and killed by order of the king.
And yet the longer he stayed, the more he despised himself for the actions he was taking. He had hidden away from the fighting as much as possible whilst based at Delcia however he had killed one man. It was a soldier who had been badly wounded in the turmoil and Paldar had hacked an axe into his stomach, shuddering as the man gave out a blood-curdling cry.
The man’s face haunted him day and night, keeping him awake until the early hours as he replayed the moment over and over again. He tried to tell himself that the man would have died anyway but it didn’t change his own involvement in the man’s death.
Paldar painstakingly considered all the possibilities about his victim’s background. Did he have a family? Children? Perhaps that was his last day of active service before finishing his tour of duty. Perhaps it was his first and he was trying to make his parents proud.
All these ideas buzzed around in his mind, nagging at him, tormenting him until he clamped his hands around his face and growled angrily. At least whilst Allisad had been there he had taken the young soldier under his wing, reassuring him with friendly words.
‘He’d have killed you just as quickly, given half the chance,’ the veteran had advised him that evening. For a time that had set Paldar’s mind at rest but now even Allisad had gone, deserting the army after being branded a traitor.
At least, that was one of the stories. Then again, he had also been told in confidence that Allisad’s throat was cut by a prostitute who then fed his body to her six starving children. You can’t believe everything you hear, he mused with a smile.
When word had got round that Allisad had left, the camp had been in chaos. He was one of the most senior officers, second only to General Lazarus himself, and always led his troops with credibility and authority.
Confidence and morale dropped significantly throughout the regiment but it had hit Paldar particularly hard because the amicable officer had been the closest thing he’d had to a friend since he’d signed up to the army all those months ago.
Even without one of their most capable officers, the war raged on and now the entire Kappish army was assembled at the gates of Poranthia, poised to strike if the town refused to surrender. If there was no white flag by dawn, the siege would begin.
Hearing a shrill whistle from the direction of the camp, Paldar scowled and begrudgingly made his way back to base, consciously steeling himself for yet more gruelling exercise in preparation for tomorrow’s attack.
Having begun their journey in animated conversation, the dialogue between Ryden and his companions soon dried up. By the time evening arrived they were riding in an uncomfortable silence that he struggled to break; a situation that Melca exacerbated by remaining distant and preoccupied.
The sun was low on the horizon and the thin lines of cloud that stretched across the deepening blue sky had adopted a pink-purple hue. A salty breeze blew in from the Tyratic Sea a few hundred yards to their left; however Ryden still felt warm even without a cloak or jerkin over his thin cotton shirt. He knew also that the temperature would increase as they travelled further south and wondered just how hot it would be once they reached Jalapa.
He asked Allisad whether it was very cold in Kappland but the soldier merely shrugged and said ‘I guess,’ before returning to his thoughts. Unfortunately, the man who had been so talkative the previous evening now seemed distracted and wholly disinterested in his riding companions.
Likewise, Melca maintained a sullen silence for the majority of the ride, scowling whenever Ryden caught his eye. There was no doubt that Melca didn’t trust their new guide and was not prepared to give away any of his thoughts whilst the stranger was in earshot. Instead he sat resolutely quiet on Storm, flask in one hand and reins in the other, gazing passively out across the Masnian plains.
When the horses slowed and began to falter it became clear that it was too dark to continue, so the riders found a small stand of yerti trees and set up camp. It wasn’t long before they had fed and watered the horses, lit a small fire and begun to prepare a meal.
Melca had again tended to Storm as best he could through observing and mimicking his companions but when it came to making some food he was pleased to see that their catering knowledge was somewhat limited.
Taking over, he collected a number of grasses and leaves from the surrounding area and crushed them into a pan, explaining as he did so the names and qualities of the plants as well as describing their flavours on request. Holding the pan over a small fire, he added some diced lamb that Allisad had brought with him from the village and seasoned the food with pepper and spices from his own pack.
As the meal was cooking, he broke off three large pieces of bark from a nearby tree and scrubbed them in a nearby stream with a handful of grass. He then used these as makeshift plates as he served up the food, even offering to make some cutlery for Ryden and Allisad.
Allisad grinned. ‘I’ve never had such a luxurious dinner whilst travelling – it’s almost as though I never left home.’ Ryden laughed and the man continued, ‘you’ll make someone a lovely wife one day, Mel!’
‘There’s no shame in being able to cook,’ Melca argued defensively. It’s important to eat well if you want to maintain your strength.’
‘I know, I know,’ Allisad replied. ’And cleanliness is next to godliness, and a stitch in time saves nine. You really do sound like an old woman sometimes. I don’t know how you’ll cope in the army, not being able to wear a clean uniform every day.
Ryden had stopped laughing now, realising that Allisad was being quite personal. He glanced over at Melca to see how his friend would react.
‘If you don’t want to ride with us,’ Melca said slowly, a sharp note in his voice, ‘then don’t. But if you do then you can at least respect the hospitality that we show you. Especially,’ he paused for a moment whilst he chose his words carefully, ‘especially when you are far from home and unlikely to be missed.’
Allisad sat stunned for a moment, unsure whether the boy was making a serious threat, then he laughed it off. ‘Good for you, Mel. On reflection, I think you’ll cope just fine in the army. It seems as though you can look after yourself.’
Satisfied, Melca sat back and finished his meal in silence. Allisad finished soon after and announced his intention to find some firewood before the night became too dark. Once he was out of earshot, Melca glared meaningfully at Ryden. ‘Do you still think he’s on the level?’
‘Actually, Mel, I think you’re right. There’s something he’s not telling us. As we were riding he was constantly looking over his shoulder, as if he expected to be ambushed at any moment. And if he is being pursued for one reason or another, then that could put us in danger too.’
‘Do we ask him and risk him turning against us?’ Melca suggested. ‘Do we ignore it and pretend everything’s fine? Or do we wait until he’s asleep and then go on without him?’
‘He’s a good rider; I don’t think we could continue towards Jalapa without him catching us if he wanted to. There are two of us and only one of him, so I suggest we confront him. Wait until tomorrow though; let’s keep quiet about it tonight so we can get a good night’s rest.’ Ryden heard a twig snap nearby and fell silent.
A moment later Allisad emerged from the trees. He was carrying enough wood to see them through the night with ease and he dropped it in a heap not far from where Ryden and Melca were sat.
Stoking up the fire, he tried to make conversation but was met with a frosty reception and in the end decided to curl up for sleep instead. Melca followed suit but Ryden, kept awake with ideas and worries buzzing around his head, decided to sit up for a while.
As he added more logs to the fire, a thought occurred to him. Reaching into one of the saddlebags, he rummaged around for a while before his hand fell upon the leather cover of his father’s old journal.
He had known of the book’s existence for well over a year now but had never read it out of respect for his father’s privacy; although the man was now dead he had clearly wanted this book to remain secret, hence why he had kept it in a locked chest.
As time had passed and with weightier things on his mind, Ryden had forgotten about the book and the memory of it had only resurfaced when he came to leave Cadmir. Withdrawing it slowly from the bag, he picked a page at random and started to read.
The political climate is shifting. Aranin and Nazir are making great strides, however it seems that unity in Kappland will not come cheaply. Carrick fears that Rejkland may become a target.
Ryden flicked through the pages until another entry caught his eye then began reading again avidly.
It has been a long time since we were all together and I pray that the others can stay strong. For my part, I will soon need to travel to Valihall, which is once again under threat from the united Kapp army. I am worried about leaving Ryden. I cannot yet explain to him why I must go; he is still too young to understand.
I received word from Aranin today. He continues to talk with Garro however he feels he has underestimated Lazarus’s level of influence.
He suspects that someone knows about the Network. Whenever he leaves the house he sees shadows watching him and he has taken to sleeping in the day so he can remain alert at night.
At the mention of his name, a lump formed in Ryden’s throat. He still missed his father greatly and although he had come to terms with his death, it was still difficult to cope with such an insight into the man’s life.
Furthermore, he was absorbed by the air of mystery around his father’s words and racked his brain to try to make sense of them. He turned to the last entry in the book and blanched when he recognised the date. It was the day before his father was killed.
It has been seven weeks since I last heard from Aranin. I fear he has been taken captive and started to talk.
News reached me today that Nazir was found dead. They say he was killed during an attempted mugging, though I doubt a man with his skill in combat could be killed by a petty thief. Cernos and Carrick are also concerned for their safety.
I will be returning to Valihall within the week. I must be vigilant.
Ryden felt sick. His father was scared for his safety the day before he died. What if it wasn’t just a group of renegades that killed him? What if it was a planned assassination because of what his father knew or what he had been doing? His head spun as he tried to make sense of it all.
What was his father involved in, that provoked all these secret meetings? More importantly, who was it that wanted him dead? Who had killed him and why?
Ryden didn’t have the answers. He would read this diary from cover to cover in the hope that it would provide some; but in the meantime he had too much to think about and only a few hours before dawn, so he forced himself to put the book down and try to get some sleep.
The next morning dawned bright and fair and Melca was the first to wake. He had slept lightly, concerned about the motives of their Kappish companion. He didn’t know how Allisad would react when they confronted him but if he truly was a spy then he may try to kill them both once he found out that his cover was blown.
Looking up into the perfect blue sky, Melca inhaled deeply, savouring the quality of the air. It was so much fresher here than in a village community, where the stench of animals and vegetables and ovens and people was often overpowering. He stretched, then picked up the frying pan he had used the previous night and jogged through the trees until he reached the water.
The stream was not much more than a trickle along most of its course through the trees; however in one spot Melca saw a gentle waterfall that had formed over several years to traverse the hilly terrain in the region. Beneath the cascading water a small rock pool had developed, so Melca knelt next to the pool and cleaned his pan, scrubbing at it with a handful of soft grass to remove the burnt vegetation.
He rested the pan upside-down on a large rock to drain and then removed his shirt and splashed water onto his face, chest and stomach. When it first touched his skin he shivered with the cold but then immediately felt invigorated and refreshed. He began to scrub himself with a bar of soap that he had brought with him from home.
The rock pool may not have been as convenient to use as the bathtub he’d been provided with at the Cob and Pen but it certainly offered a good alternative to starting the day stinking of yesterday’s sweat. After he had washed, Melca drank thirstily from the waterfall before making his way back to the camp.
When he got back, Ryden and Allisad were still fast asleep so he decided to prepare his bow. Not that it would be any use if they ended up fighting Allisad in close combat; however it reassured him to know he had a good weapon to hand, particularly because he still wasn’t confident with the sword manoeuvres that Ryden had taught him.
Taking yesterday’s shirt, he rubbed it up and down the length of the bow, warming the wood to ensure it would be as supple as possible. He then carefully twisted the string twenty times for strength and fitted it to the bow. He pulled the bow gently to test the tension, careful not to release it as doing so without an arrow notched could be damaging to the bow.
He went about this whole routine mechanically; he was so familiar with the process that it came as second nature to him, requiring no conscious thought on his part.
Once satisfied, he glanced over to where Allisad and Ryden lay. Allisad was stretched out on his back, his arms and legs splayed as though he had just landed there from a great height. Ryden was curled up, knees near his chin and his hands clenching a small book. Melca wondered momentarily what it was, then dismissed the thought and decided to practise his swordsmanship whilst he had some time to kill.
After reminding himself of the five defensive manoeuvres that Ryden had showed him, he set about trying the corresponding attacks. Standing a few feet from a tree with a broad, gnarled trunk, he began swinging at it wildly, imagining with each strike that a deadly opponent was blocking his attempts. He became so caught up in this activity that he didn’t hear Allisad approaching until the man’s hand fell on his wrist. He spun around and the sight of the Kappish warrior standing over him almost made his knees buckle.
‘You should be careful how you practise, Mel. The sword will only stay sharp for so long and you may need it again before you can get to a blacksmith. Present company excepted, of course,’ he added, with a glance towards the sleeping Ryden. ‘It is just as easy to practise technique and balance without a physical target.’
‘Why should I need the sword before we reach Jalapa?’ Melca asked sharply. ‘There isn’t anyone here that would wish me harm.’
‘Is that so? And how about your woodland skirmish just outside Sharbury? I was in the tavern that night, remember? I saw the men who came looking for you. Although from watching you just now I would guess that the sword isn’t your weapon of choice anyway.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because your balance is all wrong. If you have your feet side by side then you may have stability from sideways strikes, but what if someone steps forward and punches you?’ As Allisad spoke, he stepped forward and placed his hand on Melca’s chest, shoving him backwards. Melca stumbled, trying to get a foot behind him to right himself.
Allisad continued. ‘The best stance to take is one foot in front of the other, keeping them a little way apart. Imagine a square drawn on the ground, then place your feet in opposite corners, rather than just using the front two.’
Melca had no desire to take any advice from Allisad but to avoid making a scene he did as he was shown, then Allisad again tried to push Melca backwards. He didn’t budge.
‘There you go! Much more effective. We’ll make a swordsman out of you yet! Here, let’s go through your moves again.’ Smiling, Allisad drew his sword and beckoned for Melca to come at him. Melca cautiously swung his sword in from his right and Allisad batted it away with some force.
‘Come on Mel, don’t go easy on me! Imagine this was a real fight. Don’t worry about me; I can assure you that you won’t get any hits past me.’
His arrogance irked Melca, so without waiting to be asked again the young baker immediately surged forward, swinging his sword frantically. He kept trying to find a gap in the Kapp’s defences but to no avail and from time to time Allisad would try to offer some advice, which just patronised Melca all the more.
At the sound of clashing swords, Ryden awoke sharply. Seeing Melca and Allisad fighting head to head, he immediately leapt to his feet, drawing his sword in one smooth movement. Shouting at the top of his voice, he charged into the fray and swung at the bewildered Allisad, who managed to block the wild cut but was knocked from his feet in the process.
‘Wait!’ Melca shouted, stopping Ryden in his tracks as he advanced on the fallen warrior. ‘We were practising Ry, that’s all. Just practising.’
Ryden gasped as realisation dawned, then quickly sheathed his sword and ran over to help Allisad to his feet, apologising profusely. Allisad just laughed. ‘Don’t concern yourself Ry; I can imagine how it must have looked. Mel’s lucky to have such a heroic friend! Now we’re all wide awake, shall we have a bite to eat?’
Once they had settled down and begun to tuck into a breakfast of bread and cheese, Ryden asked suddenly, ‘Are we being pursued?’
It came so quickly that both Melca and Allisad were taken aback. Allisad looked immediately worried.
‘Why? Have you seen someone?’ he asked. He made as if to stand and his hand strayed to his sword-hilt.
That reaction was enough to confirm Ryden’s fears. ‘If someone is after you, don’t you think it would have been nice to let us know?’ he snapped, ‘given that we may even now be in mortal danger?’
‘Well I didn’t see the need to worry you,’ Allisad started. ’I mean, I don’t even know if they are following me. I hope that I lost them way back, if indeed anyone was pursuing me in the first place.’
‘Who?’ Melca demanded.
‘Outriders from Lazarus, who else? I expected him to try to track me down after I fled from Delcia but I haven’t seen hide nor hair of anyone.’
‘Not Rejk forces then?’ Ryden prompted.
‘They don’t even know I’m here yet. I’ve only been on the run for a few days and apart from the other night in the village I haven’t been in contact with anyone.’
‘How do we know you’re not a spy?’ Melca blurted out, then immediately felt self-conscious for making such a direct accusation.
Allisad paused briefly to absorb the question, then glanced from Melca to Ryden and saw the same concern reflected in both faces. He shrugged his shoulders and lifted his palms to the sky. ‘What can I say? Anyone in the Kappish army can tell you I am no longer welcome there but unless you’re going to talk to them, I don’t know how I can reassure you.’ He stopped to assess the situation but Ryden and Melca remained silent.
‘You’re both suspicious of me; I can tell. If you’re not comfortable riding with me then we should part ways now. It’s a pity because I felt as though I was just getting to know you both but I can understand your scepticism.’
Allisad rose and made as if to leave but Ryden called him back.
‘Alli, listen. We just needed to know, that’s all. I don’t see any harm in us riding together. After all, you know just as little about us as we do about you. We’ll travel to Jalapa together and part ways there. If you still want to, of course.’
Allisad nodded his agreement. Melca cast a dark look at Ryden but said nothing.
The day passed uneventfully and when the three men decided to rein in and make camp for the night they had already covered close to fifty miles. Although Melca had now become quite an accomplished rider, he still found spending all day in the saddle very uncomfortable and so it was a welcome relief when they dismounted at last to settle down for the evening.
The atmosphere had been different today. Allisad had made every effort to be sociable and friendly with both Ryden and Melca, although Melca was still not convinced that the Kapp’s motives were entirely honest. Nevertheless, he had tried to be civil to the man and whilst he didn’t like to admit it, he had found himself warming to him.
It seemed that Allisad had grown up in a village similar in size to Cadmir and had always been ambitious to get out and see the world. This ambition had led him to join the army, where he had travelled throughout Kappland on various campaigns during the civil war before being offered a senior position in the National Guard after the country’s two opposing factions had united in the year 203.
They had initially spent a lot of time rebuilding communities and helping to set the country straight, something that had certainly appealed to Allisad’s better nature. However, when plans were made to establish the Kappish Empire, he and many others became caught up in the newly-found national pride.
Melca was surprised by how open Allisad had become, when just yesterday he had shrugged off any personal questions to avoid discussing his background. He even explained in detail what his role had been in the army and sounded genuinely remorseful about the impact his actions had made on the people of Rejkland.
He was still chatting openly when Ryden suggested they stop for the night. After another campfire meal expertly prepared by Melca, Allisad continued his story.
Having taken responsibility for one of six regiments, comprising about five thousand men, he had become the youngest officer in the Kappish army. He was widely known and respected and, more importantly, he was favoured by General Lazarus.
It was partly as a result of this bias that he’d been given the opportunity to develop some of the most decisive strategies at Valihall and at Delcia, although it could also be said that the success of those strategies was the reason he had earned respect from the general.
In any case, this had led to him being viewed as one of the most powerful figures in Kappland and whilst Allisad was not one to trouble himself with other people’s perceptions, it was nevertheless flattering to be so highly thought of.
‘But enough of this talk,’ he concluded, ‘that life is now dead and gone and I must make the best of the situation I am now faced with.’
‘It sounds like you’ve sacrificed a lot,’ Ryden observed. ‘But I’m sure you made the right decision.’
‘Perhaps,’ Allisad conceded. ‘But regardless, one cannot judge their life on the outcome of a single choice. The Author knows that each of us will make our share of good decisions and poor decisions as we walk this road of life. I like to think that each of us is given the opportunity to redeem ourselves when a poor choice has been made.’
Then again, who can tell? his internal monologue said, picking up the conversation where his mouth had left off. I just hope I will be given that opportunity.