The horse’s hooves made a sticky thok thok thok noise as they rode through the deep mud. They had been on the road for four days when a storm had blown in, forcing them to stop at an inn they had come across. It took three days for the storm to blow itself out while lightning streaked across the sky and winds shook the inn’s thin walls. Ralph had not been totally convinced that the building would stay up even though the knights slept like there was nothing going on in world.
Now they were far behind their original schedule of a week to Cremhildoron, and the mud was slowing their pace considerably. Brother Albe sulked on his horse at the unavoidable delay and tried to push them quicker, only letting them stop for a few moments to water the horses and get a quick bite of the travel rations they had. Those were disgusting. The travel rations were lumps of stuff that tasted like hardened sawdust when he tore into it. Most of the food they had was travel rations, so he had to choke it down when he got hungry. Once he was sure that there was a rock in his bread, but it was just a piece of walnut. He counted himself lucky to not have chipped a tooth.
And the horses were awefull. Walking was preferable to riding, in his opinion, but he could not deny that it was much faster. The miles almost flew by, before the storm had struck. Now, the only positive aspect of riding was that they were not all covered in mud. The horses kicked up some mud, but it was nothing compared to slogging through the thick mixture. But on horseback there was nothing to do once he got the trick of making the horse go straight and stop when he wanted it to. Most of the time his horse followed the lead of the knight’s horse anyway.
Unfortunately, the knights were not any good at conversation either, and if he started talking to Albe, he would be accosted about his reading and writing progress. The storm had given them plenty of time to have lessons in the subject, and he had improved a bit. Brother Albe was strict in his tutoring, and he had not allowed Ralph any time to himself while it was light enough to read or write.
“Sir Kelmore, how far does this forest go?” Ralph asked the knight in the lead. Sir Kelmore talked more than his friend Sir Quarin, but that was still hardly at all. “This is Lanara wood,” the knight replied. “It is seven miles through the thickest part. We will be through soon.” Nothing more was forthcoming, and Ralph sighed. “What is the difference between a wood and a forest?” he finally asked in desperation.
“A forest is large enough to support a wing of dragons, but a wood can not. Woods can only support one or two. Usually there are only the little forest drakes in woods. Though when you think on it they should be called wood drakes,” Kelmore said, adjusting his sword. “I never understood why they named them forest dragons instead of wood drakes. There are fewer forest drakes in actual forests because the dragons will hunt them and eat them all.”
Ralph looked around at the dense vegetation, searching for signs of the forest drakes. “Oh you won’t find them near the road,” Kelmore assured him. “There are patrols that come through here often, and they kill any of the little runts if they find them. Bandit gangs hunt them as well, I am told.” Kelmore shifted in his saddle and slowed his horse, beckoning Ralph to continue.
It was not difficult for him to get his horse to keep going. He thought it peculiar that Kelmore was shifting to the back already. The sun was obscured by branches and vibrant green leaves, but he was sure that it had not been the allotted number of hours to the lead switch. Softly rustling branches caught his attention, and a dark shape retreated further into the dark cover of the woods.
Uneasy, he glanced back at the two knights. They spoke in hushed tones so that he could not hear what they said. Brother Albe was muttering under his breath, a faint light shone barely visible from behind his eyes, and his hands were shrouded in the deep folds of his robe. Turning back around, he wished he had a spear with him. He would have settled for the a bow. Behind him, Quarin instructed Braydent to string his bow.
Fidgeting uselessly in the saddle, Ralph scanned the brush for anymore of the fleeting shadows, but he could see nothing except the plants. Birds chirped gaily overhead, and the soft shade cast by the canopy above was refreshing. The quiet rustle of leaves shifting in the slight breeze reached his ears as softly as rabbit fur. He frowned. There was no breeze blowing. A glance up confirmed his suspicion, and he searched the forest more fervently.
A man, tall but not overly muscular, stepped suddenly out of the bushes and into the middle of the road. “Good morning,” the man announced, grinning. “What have we here? Three villagers, two knights, and a greenling. I’m afraid you’re going to have to pay the toll before you go any further,” the man said, folding his arms across his chest. “It will be forty six coppers, if you will.”
“And who are you?” Ralph asked. He did not have nearly as much as that amount, and he was not going to pay money to travel on the road. “You’re not any sort of official.”
“And you’re a clever one, aren’t you,” the man said, sneering. “It’s either forty six coppers or everything you have. You’re lucky we’re not just taking it as it is. Only reason we’re not is the greeny you gots with you.” The man inclined his head, as close to respectfully as he could, to Brother Albe. “Don’t say I’m not a religious one. I believe in the gods, so we shouldn’t hurt their servants.”
“All people are the god’s servants,” Brother Albe said calmly. “Whether they know it or not. Everyone works together towards the god’s plans, so we all serve them in the end.”
“Right you are,” the thief grinned, fumbling with a threadbare hat. “So I hope they understand that a man must make a livin to eat.”
“By stealing, and taking from others their living? That is one of the most dishonorable things a man can do in this life,” Albe scolded. “Go, turn away from this lifestyle and follow the way of the gods. If you present yourself to the Temple of Taruka at Cremhildoron, I am sure we can find well-paying work for you.”
The man was silent for a moment, and then he scowled fiercely and ran at them. Ralph jerked the reins back in surprise, and the horse reared, kicking the tall man in the chest. Unable to keep his balance on the bucking horse, Ralph toppled off, landing heavily in the cold mud. A hoof splashed next to him, jolting his scrambled senses back to the present. Crawling as quickly as he could through the sucking mud, he managed to escape being trampled by his own beast.
Behind him, metal clashed on metal, and he flipped himself over, sitting in the mud. The knights were engaged in furious combat with unarmored, dirty looking men that had sprung out of the side of the road. Horrace was already on the ground wrestling with another one of the bandits. Braydent sat atop his horse, awkwardly drawing his longbow and firing as quickly as he could. A man screamed, and one of the bandits fell away from the knights, blood streaking down his side.
Rough hands seized his neck, and Ralph scrabbled at the tightening fingers cutting off his air. In desperation, he reached back and clawed at his attacker. His fingers brushed against flesh. Straining, he gained another few inches and jabbed his fingers into the eyes of his attacker. Pain flared through his shoulders, but the man let go.
Gulping air, Ralph flung himself around again. It was the man that his horse had kicked. He was holding his eyes and howling in pain that quickly turned to rage as his vision cleared and saw Ralph laying in the mud. With wordless savagery the man came at him, fists flying toward his head. Not knowing how to react, he covered his face and blocked the wild punches.
Looking between the gap in his forearms, he saw the bandit pull a long knife from his belt. Swallowing hard, he searched the mud frantically, sloshing it about. “What are you doing there boy,” taunted the bandit. “Your friends are too busy to save you!”
Ralph’s hand closed over an apple sized lump, and he tore the rock out of the mud. The thief lunged at him, but he slipped in the mud, lost and fell. Taking the opportunity Ralph brought the rock down as hard as he could on the man’s head. A sickening crunch rewarded his effort, and he drew the now red rock back. He swung again, and blood spattered his face, staining it red. Finally out of breath, Ralph let the rock drop from his hand and splash back into the mud.
The bandit lay face down and unmoving, a gross depression in his skull gaped back at him red and broken. It was too much. Ralph vomited on the corps. He had killed a man. Every meal he had ever eaten came out of his stomach and was spent on the churned up mud. When there was nothing left in him and he was gagging on bile, a heavy gauntleted hand shook him.
“You did what you had to do,” Sir Kelmore said grimly. “It was him or you, and you chose him.”
“Was it like this your first time?” Ralph asked quietly.
“Well, I wasn’t jumped by bandits but yes it was a nasty situation. I think it is the same way for everyone the first time. There is a moment when you wonder if it’s okay, even if they mean to kill you as well, to kill another man. It is as though killing is inherently sickening to everyone. Only the sick do not feel remorse for their fallen foes.”
“Only the foolish dwell on the dead, Kelmore,” Sir Quarin said, wiping his blade on the tunic of one of the dead men. “The living should be taken care of before you grieve for the dead. Did anyone take harm?”
One by one they all called back to Quarin. Horrace had a broken ankle from his fall, Braydent was fine, brother Albe snorted and crossed his arms, and Kelmore shook his head. “I’m alright,” Ralph responded, lastly and out of breath. It had been incredibly quick. Every moment had felt like an eternity while he was fighting, but now that he looked around in the aftermath he realized it had been only a few short seconds.
His shoulders ached from reaching so far, and there would be bruises on his arms for a few days where he had blocked the punches. But Ralph could not complain. Before him lay the bodies of twelve men. Arrows stuck out of two, blood pooled around nearly all the rest, and then there was the one that he had killed with a rock. Vomit threatened to explode out of him, but somehow he managed to keep it down. He swallowed hard and tore his gaze away from the staring corpses. They looked accusing even in death.
“Should we burry them?” Horrace asked.
“No,” Brother Albe said immediately. “They were thieves. They do not deserve a burial, nor do we have the time to give them one. May the gods judge them according to their actions.” Albe touched his forehead with his fist and lowered it slowly back to his side. “They were scoundrels in life, so shall they be judged. Let us go.” The finality of the Brother’s words was like steel. They left without another word.
Ralph felt ill the next morning, and his shoulder hurt when he heaved himself into the saddle. Sir Kelmore must have seen him grimace, for he suddenly asked “Are you well, Ralph?”
“My shoulders are a little sore, sir,” he replied, trying to play down how much it had hurt. It had felt like his arms were tearing out of his shoulders, but he was not going to tell the knight that!
“Very well then,” Sir Kelmore said, narrowing his eyes at Ralph. “How did you sleep last night? How is killing that man yesterday sitting with you?”
That night he had gone through the situation again and again in his head, and he could see no better outcome. Had they left the bandits and simply run, they would waylay more travelers and probably kill them. If they paid the thieves, they would become bolder and try to stop more heavily armed people and die just the same. When they killed the thieves, they eliminated a threat to travelers, and they avoided being robbed. “It had to be done,” Ralph replied. “It was either I died or he did, and I did not want to die. At that point there was nothing I could have said to make him stop.”
“Very well,” Sir Kelmore said. “I am glad that you see that. In some situations, you can talk people down, and then you can pass without bloodshed. But others like yesterday, there was no way to avoid it. Always remember that to defend yourself from violence, you may need to use violence as well. It is when you attack someone for no reason -or for personal gain- that you become a criminal and your actions are illegal. Do not forget that.”
“I will not,” Ralph promised. They left the wood early in the morning as the sun rose from the east. Light, puffy clouds floated high in the sky. Sir Quarin pointed to the west, and Ralph gasped as he saw the sun already in the sky to the west. “Sun dog!” the knight said happily.
Taking a closer look, he realized that it was not the sun that was rising in the west but rather a cloud that was reflecting the sun. It was magnificent. Beams of light bounced from the shaggy white cloud in every direction, causing a rainbow to form in a halo around the bright spot. The light was bright, but it was not the blinding glare of the sun.
Ralph stared at the sun dog for another moment, mesmerized by its beauty. Finally looking north towards their destination, his breath caught in his throat. In the distance a hill rose above the surrounding fields and scattered trees. A massive wall cut through the earth halfway up the hill, running all the way down the far side and to the banks of the East Vereroe River. Tall towers clawed toward the sky at regular intervals, looming over the rest of the city.
From so far away, they could not see the guards on watch atop the mighty walls, but as the hill rose some of the buildings winked at them, reflecting light off their shingles. At the top of the hill was a large dome, and more walls –if a bit smaller than the outer walls- surrounded it. Golden light shined off the dome, and Ralph squinted his eyes, straining to see any detail of the building.
“The walls of Cremhildoron. They are the largest in the world, and they have never been breached in over a thousand years,” Sir Kelmore said, a gleam in his eyes. “They were built over a thousand years ago by the empire that once ruled the whole of this land. Since then, no other walls have been built like it. The blocks are fitted so well that you cannot even see the mortar they used. It might as well be a solid block of stone, but it is so much stronger than normal stone.”
Looking toward the river, Ralph noticed that the wall continued over the water, and great arches let ships pass underneath it. His eyes widened as he saw the wall continue out of the water on the far side of the river. A massive fortress poked its own towers above the walls, and even from miles away the blurry outline of massive war engines could be seen. A banner snapped in the breeze at the top of the tallest tower, barely visible from so far away. “It must be miles long!” Ralph breathed. How could such a large city even be sustained?
“It is our largest city,” Sir Quarin confirmed. “Not even the capital is as large, but Glendale is also half cut out of the mountain. The river flows to Colosove Lake through the Confurlen Mountains, and the arches in the wall have great chains that can be lowered to stop any ship from coming in or leaving port. Of course we have never had to use in since we can drop pieces of the mountain over the river at any ships coming to invade us, but it is a good backup.” Quarin looked pleased with his description of Cremhildoron’s capabilities.
“What is the big dome at the top of the hill?” Braydent asked. “Why is it covered in gold?”
“That is the temple to the gods,” Brother Albe explained. “At the top of the city is their rightful place, and as the second largest temple in Ter-Multramon it is only fitting that it looks the part.”
“Why is a temple surrounded by walls?” Ralph asked. “I thought that temples were supposed to be places open to everyone.”
“It is open to everyone, but it is also the final fall back location for our forces if the outer wall is ever breached. Magic is extremely strong at the top of the hill. Much stronger than normal,” Albe continued without prompting. “Even novices can cast stronger spells and more spells without growing faint or weak. We cannot explain the phenomenon, but we think it plays a role in the wall’s strength. So when we are at our weakest, our magic is at its strongest right when we need it to be.”
“How long can the city last in a siege?” Braydent asked. “Such a big city must have a huge population, and they must eat a ton of food. How is the city even possible without an army of farmers?”
“Magic,” Brother Albe said simply. “We have created a type of wheat that takes only a quarter of the time to grow as normal wheat, and that is grown in the fields you see from here. In truth, only three quarters of the city is inhabited because we could not grow enough food, but due to the new wheat we expect to fill the rest of the city in the coming decade. Also, there is an ingenious contraption that traps fish in large pens, and the fish breed in the pens to be taken to market later. We call them fish farms, and they produce much more than you think they would,” the Brother added when he saw Ralph’s skeptical look. “In addition to those measures, there is excellent pasture land to the east where farmers have droves of cattle, sheep, and many other sorts of animals.”
“And there are good wineries near the mountains on terraces,” added Sir Kelmore.
Brother Albe glanced at the knight and snorted. “There are some decent wineries near the mountains, though everyone knows that the wineries in the southern Magnumon Mountains are far superior.”
“A matter of taste,” the older knight said with a grin and touched his chest respectfully.
Far in the distance, Ralph could see the jagged tops of the mountains covered in snow, reaching toward sky as if trying to tear into it. Indeed, many of the summits were cloaked by clouds, and the peaks stretched to the North and South as far as he could see. He had never come so far from home, and the sights were breathtaking and terrifying at the same time. As he gazed at the shimmering mountains in the distance, a single tear streaked from his eye and ran down his face, sailing through the air until it splashed to the ground and sank into the earth.
He barely registered the tear as he looked at the growing wheat. It was already sprouted and taller than his knee. At home, he knew his father would be tending tiny stalks that had just pushed through the earth, struggling to keep the weeds away from its delicate roots. That was if he was lucky. In all likelihood there still were not any that had broken the surface yet and probably would not for another few days.
“How quickly did you say these could grow?” Ralph asked again, astonished at the pace the plants were growing.
“If we plant them early we can get as many as four harvests a year if the first crop doesn’t freeze, and the wheat reproduces flawlessly for many years before a new batch needs to be enchanted. This particular kind was in testing for quite a long time. Scholar Bartimai made the first strand, and he improved it halfway through the testing, so it took longer than usual to put his invention into work,” Brother Albe said proudly.
“How much is it to purchase a bushel of this new wheat?” Ralph asked. If any of the other farmers near his home had any of this magic wheat, his father could never sell their extra wheat for anything but a pittance. Other farmers could charge significantly less for their extra wheat. “Do you have any other crops like that?”
“No, but we are trying to duplicate the spell on different types of beans, oats, and of course hops,” Brother Albe said. “So far we have not had much progress, and for some reason the same spell does not work on different crops. Not only do they not work they have been counterproductive sometimes. We created one strand of hops that took twice as long to grow! Though they did make much better tasting beer-”
“How much does the wheat cost per bushel?” Ralph asked again, interrupting Brother Albe. “I would like to purchase some to send to my father for our own fields.”
“Oh,” Brother Albe said, surprised that someone had interupted him. “Well I know that some seed can be purchased at the temple for a silver or so. They also accept a pledge that a farmer will bring twenty percent of their first and second crops as a sacrifice for the gods.”
“Thank you brother. Is there a way that I could get some of this seed sent to my father?” Ralph asked. “He needs some of these seeds so he can grow as quickly as the other farmers.”
“Why would he need to grow as fast as the other farmers?” Sir Quarin asked.
“Well, if he can only get one harvest for every three of another farmer, then that other farmer can sell his wheat for far less than he normally would because he has more wheat. He won’t be able to sell what little he has in excess at the end of the year,” he explained.
“That’s nonsense,” Sir Quarin said gruffly. “That’s what the guilds are for.”
“I do not know what a guild is,” Ralph said.
“A guild is a group of merchants or craftsmen that get together and agree to not charge so much or so little so that they all may get business. Take the blacksmiths for an example. All of the blacksmiths in Cremhildoron are a part of the Blacksmith’s guild, and they have meetings every three months to discuss their trade and prices. No one can start a smithy without being part of the Blacksmith’s guild, and they can keep anyone from opening up shop too.
“Though I have never heard of a farmer’s guild before,” Sir Quarin said, tugging on his long mustache. “But if this miracle wheat works the way the priest says it will, then a farmer’s guild is not far on the horizon.” The knight looked at the wheat again with an appraiser’s eye. “It looks alright to me,” he said and fell silent again.
Ralph shook his head. It seemed simple to him. If wheat became extremely common then they would have excess, and that would mean that it could be bought for less than when there is a scarcity of the crop. That was why food was so expensive in famines. The more common things are the less they are worth, and the more scarce it is the more people will pay to have it.
The crop fields stopped abruptly nearly a half mile from the high walls of Cremhildoron, and then it was nothing but open terrain. There was no way to sneak up to the walls in the crops.
Guards holding long spears stood on each side of the road leading up to the gate. The tips of their spears blazed in the morning sun, and their armor gleamed from fresh polish. An officer in a black plumed helmet stood in the center of the gate, blocking a large wagon from entering.
Stepping around the wagon, the priest lead Ralph and his friends to the front of the line to get in. “Captain,” Brother Albe said waving to the officer. The man looked up from a piece of parchment he was studying, and his hand slipped to the pommel of his sword. “Who are these three bumpkins, Brother?”
Ralph fidgeted at the insult, but he held his tongue. “We are not bumpkins!” Braydent blurted out, glaring down at the armed man. “We are from Getrindale down the highroad!”
“I know where Getrindale is, boy, and you’re all bumpkins there. Now why are you here?” The man’s hand tightened around the hilt of his sword.
“We’re here to join the army!” Braydent said quickly, realizing he had spoken too quickly. “I’m going to be part of the Knights of the Mountain Wall.”
“Good luck with that,” snickered the officer. Ralph shifted slightly under the man’s searching gaze. “Get in the city, bumpkins,” he said, turning back to the parchment in his hand.
Ralph walked through the tunnel that was the gate and stepped out into the city. Noise immediately assaulted his ears. Busy passersby walked quickly, their shoes -if they had any- clicking on the street’s stones. Wagons creaked along behind oxen with massive horns, lowing at anyone that got too close, and the drivers shouted down at anyone that crossed in front of their paths. Hawkers yelled out their goods and pushed through the crowds.
The second thing he noticed was the stench. The odor was horrid, burning his nose with every breath. Waste ran down open gutters on the sides of the streets. Beggars in filthy rags peppered the commerce of the city, lying near the gutters or shambling through the throng of bodies, their heads bent in defeat and poverty. Small street urchins dashed through the crowds looking for anything they could pick-up or eat. A small troop of soldiers marched by, hardly looking around at the maelstrom of activity around them. Their armor was as bright and polished as the guard’s outside had been. That was what they were to train to be like, Ralph thought, watching the soldiers move quickly down the street. “This place is going to be your home for the next three months at the least. Welcome to Cremhildoron,” Brother Albe said.