What has come to pass?
Well, we have met our protagonist, and more than that, we have interviewed him here. He’s a prickly sort of character. But then we’ve also witnessed his moment of revelation here, and let’s face it, he has to be half mad to do what he’s done.
But why is this General Kantal like this? Well, that’s all in the past. We will get there, I promise, but not quite yet. First we must look to his present. Who is this man outside the chaos? And how does he fit into the world? Let’s find out.
A recap on the schedule
Here’s a recap on the dates that the blogs are going to get published:
- 26th May: Prologue (The Moment)
- 2nd June: Chapter 1 (The Now)
- 9th June: Chapter 2 (The Then | 20yrs ago)
- 16th June: Chapter 3 (The Then | 15yrs ago)
- 30th June: Chapter 4 (The Then | 13yrs ago)
- 7th July: Chapter 5 (The Then | 12yrs ago)
- 14th July: Chapter 6 (The Now)
- 21st July: Epilogue (The Future | 1yr later)
And please remember: feedback is encouraged, and spread the word.
1. The Now
Some people actually liked riding, but not him. Definitely not him. Some people must have immunity to the pain and discomfort, but for him it was like a form of slow torture. The act of sitting in a saddle started a steady descent in comfort, each moment sliding immaculately into the more painful next. And the flavours of punishment were exquisite too: there were aches; sharp pains; dull throbs; numbness; those terrible pins at the other end of the spectrum. The only reprise was to stand in the stirrups, cocking one’s arse at the riders behind, but even then legs would grow tired; the saddle was always calling, and so was the punishment.
The only man riding ahead of him turned and offered a disapproving glance, a look which caused him to go stiff with unease; pain gnawing at his consciousness. He was still in awe of this man, even despite the years behind them. He was immediately obedient.
“Are we boring you, General?”
The authority in the stare unnerved him – he was not used to that look, being as he was a favourite of the man. He stuttered for a moment, before wheeling out the correct response.
“Of course not, Highness. I am entranced by your wise direction. I only exhaled at my unfortunate discomfort.”
The words came out smoothly enough, but each one grated on his throat. He was unused to such delicacy, and his common accent butchered the finesse.
“Do not oil your words, Kantal; it doesn’t suit you. What’s wrong?”
Kantal felt the snigger at his back; the twitter of a dozen scheming aristocrats. He was the one out of place, the commoner amongst the elite, but he had every right. No, he had more than every right. The king, his master, put up with him because he was worth putting up with. Kantal turned to the powdered fools and sneered. When he turned back, the king still glared.
“My arse hurts.”
There was just the tiniest elevation in the right side of his lip, his blond moustache tilting in consequence. The authority didn’t leave the man’s face, and the twittering fools expressed their shock before whispering against Kantal’s vulgar words. They would be calling him a fool, uncouth, a piece of gutter scum. He wasn’t good enough to grace their company, let alone lead their army, and for the most awkward moment, he believed them. The king stared on with stony friction, displeasure rampant on his face.
And then it contorted, ready to strike. Kantal gulped.
The royal mouth opened wide, his eyes closed, and the king let out an almighty roar. When he’d finished laughing, he wiped the spittle from his lips, and Kantal stopped clenching his buttocks – old habits die hard.
“I do so love your honesty, Kantal. My arse hurts too.”
Kantal grunted in pleasure, relief spreading through him. The peacocks were muttering disappointedly under their breath.
“It’s not natural to straddle such beasts.”
The king dropped back, and Kantal moved into step.
“Maybe not, but man has been doing it long enough. And besides, how else would we make this journey?”
That was true enough. Kantal looked about, taking in the surroundings. To his right was a sharp mountain range; stark against the pan flat lands about them. All but ato the Finder, the scrubbed brown plains of Mikaeta stretched away, a subtle heat haze rustling the horizon. But ato Friendly, the mountains stood like sentinels, protecting the luscious lands behind. That was Ahan, a glorious gem amongst a world of decay, and it had been snatched away from Delfinia; from Kantal’s king; from Delfin’s legacy; and therefore from Kantal himelf.
But you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi.
“Sorry, Highness. I agree unfortunately. Horses are a necessary evil.”
The king slapped him on the back, and Kantal could hear the renewed disappointment from the ‘cocks behind.
“A horse is a fine friend in combat too – let’s not forget that.”
An image flashed through Kantal’s head; a grey wraith in a whirlwind of steel. The enemy; the scourge.
“Not against the Mandahoi, Highness.” Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi. His lip slid over his front teeth, and he recognised the sharp relief of the gold replacement. His mind wandered, only to be torn back by his king.
“No; quite. Most weapons are useless against that particular foe. Most nights I wonder how we’ll ever overcome them.”
This was Kantal’s territory, but even he couldn’t be confident. Against the Grey, confidence only accelerated the downfall.
“There are ways, but they are,” he licked his lips, “hard.”
A grunt. There was little more to say on the matter. Instead, they could only speak of the wealth that lay beyond those mountains; a wealth forever outside their grasp. Or was it? That was what they were out to change after all.
“You do trust me don’t you, Highness?”
The ruler of Delfinia stared wistfully to the barren plains of Mikaeta; enemy territory. Well, perhaps enemy was too much, but not friends; not any more. They were civil neighbours once – Delfinia was once even a part of the greater Mikaetan Empire – but that civility had long passed, sliding with the decay and jealousy of this once famous civilisation. Mikaeta was now in a sorry state.
And to emphasise the point, the travelling party started past a great rent in the encircling mountains of the Adunas Encolae; the entrance to the valley called Aperta. Where he had been made. Enemy eyes would be all over them – Mikaetan; Gorfinian; and even Mandari – but they held open hands and would not be endangered. Kantal looked upon the wretched defences that the sorry Mikaetan army still barracked, and balked at their neglected state: flags hung shredded and limp; outposts sat in disrepair; and any sight of metal was accompanied by riotous rust. Images of battlefield defeats intoxicated Kantal’s thoughts, and he dragged his eyes away. His king had still not responded.
“Of course I trust you, Kantal; of course I do. I only wonder. For five hundred years we have been trying to lever that limpet from our territories, and yet five hundred years have passed without success. To say that I am confident would be a lie.”
He had a point. Many had tried to break the steely resolve of the Mandari, but none had succeeded. There were moments of fleeting gain, but ultimately it had been a story of utter defeat. Kantal was the latest to try.
“I am not confident either.”
After all; you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi.
His king turned to him, alarmed and questioning. “If anyone should be confident―”
“My king, forgive me, but confidence with respect the Mandahoi is entirely misplaced. Remove the Mandahoi from my path, and then I will be confident.”
The king clucked to himself.
“Yes, indeed. That is why we are here, after all.”
“Yes, my King. We are here to make sure that we can take the chance.” How they would earn the chance was still to be determined.
After all; you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi.
Mother Bright was dipping against the Finder as they came around the angle of the mountains. The creamy stone of the Beha Lomal glowed with a fiery quality as Mother bathed them in her tiredness, and the sight took Kantal’s breath. The sky ato was darkening, a rich bruising to the cosmos as the stars finally revealed themselves. Shadows were long, and it seemed that Kantal’s horse stepped over burning coals as the dry scrub absorbed the dying rays of the sun. He scanned the roots of the mountain, sure he must see his goal, nerves flourishing at the prospect. They only deepened when the place didn’t appear to him.
But then it did, and the nerves grew cold. It was a marvel of the past, a relic of the old Mikaetan power, and it absently crushed his residual confidence. He found himself shrinking upon the back of his horse as he spoke its name.
Every time he came to this place, he wondered if this was how Elai had felt. A true marvel; and a daunting nightmare. It was a place of poisonous politics, and this time Kantal was to be at the centre of that storm. He would rather face a Mandahoi.
And you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi.
Then again, you couldn’t beat Maegwyn either. She was impregnable.
It was a fortress of impossible proportions, embedded in the elbow of two mountains. A great ring formed the periphery, many stories high, palace-thick, and a city in itself; the walls were the most daunting siege prospect in the known world, but those encircling arms protected a condensed city of wealth and purpose – a symbol of Mikaetan history now garrisoned by Gorfinian tyranny. And that wasn’t the greatest part either; the tower at the rear of the complex soared into the sky, numerous floors spearing rebelliously into the heavens. As they approached the fortress, it was almost as if the tower surpassed the mountains themselves, and Kantal felt his breath catch. The wind whipped, and he shivered – yet his cloak was thick.
Yes, this was definitely how Elai would have felt – terror and awe. It was catching.
The gargantuan gates, themselves at least four stories in height, opened just a crack, barely discernible in the detail of the silhouette. Soon, as true darkness started to creep over the landscape, riders could be seen galloping at pace in their direction. Kantal tensed, but there was no reason for that; they were invited. After all, what chance of a Gorfinian betraying the trust of another? Kantal laughed to himself, and his king flicked a look.
“Sorry, Highness – a private joke.”
There was no easing of his king’s rebuke this time.
“Keep it to yourself, General. The Gorfinians are not famed for their sense of humour.” He let it sink in before stating the obvious. “The doormen have come to greet us. Let us meet them with open palms.”
And at that, the king sped off with his chief banner-men, leaving Kantal to ponder the wisdom of his plan. Many had tried, and all had failed; why would he be any different?
After all, you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi.
Illustrious company indeed. It was a wonder Kantal wasn’t nervous. Oh hang on, he was rubbing his sweaty hands together. Of course the nerves had got to him; he was overwhelmed.
He would rather face a Mandahoi.
“My lord, we are grateful for your invitation.”
Kantal’s King was leading proceedings – the greater of the two men where etiquette was concerned. Kantal would likely be utterly impotent in any case. He wasn’t sure his nerves would permit a coherent sentence. He tried muttering under his breath to reassure himself, but the result was not heartening and he kept his head bowed, eyes darting from their cover. This was truly an impenetrable problem. Thank Ero his king was here to support him.
No – his King was here to lead. Kantal was a servant in this place.
The ruler of Delfinia, his king, sat at the far end of the table, to the right of their host and opposite a man of grand proportions. Kantal and another were the only others in seated attendance, and yet the table would seat thirty. The vast chamber was oppressive, which did nothing to stymie Kantal’s nerves. And then there was the attire. The damned attire.
A man in a deep hooded cloak – near-black; wool of some sort; very austere – leaned towards their host at the head of the table. If anything, their host’s cloak was even plainer than his servant’s. This was the tyrant himself; the ruler of Maegwyn; the hooded king; yet no-one ever heard him speak. The aide straightened as the hooded king finished his whispering and relayed the words of the tyrant.
“My lord would like to remind you that you invited yourselves.”
A shiver. If he wasn’t sure before, he now knew for certain that they were not amongst friends.
“Of course, Lord Gorfin. Then we are grateful for your acceptance.”
The king’s hood was so deep that it projected to near elbow length from his face. What of the inner could be seen was only black, and his features were therefore entirely concealed. That was the fear of the hooded king – no-one knew what lay inside. With that simple mechanism, he kept a kingdom in check. Fear was a wonderful thing.
Kantal gulped and noted that the hood of the servant was very deep also. It was a badge of honour for these strange people; the depth of the hood determining social standing. So even the servant was probably a high-up aide, or perhaps even Gorfinian nobility; whatever that entailed. He gulped once more, forcing himself to stop fiddling with his hands. As he looked away from the Gorfinian horror, he came face to face with the man opposite him. Another hood; another cloaked existence. He felt suddenly naked and pushed his eyes to the ground. Damn the attire.
The man opposite Kantal was in many ways more intimidating than the hooded king himself. And worse than that – Kantal had invited this freak. He had ways, which was why he was here, but with that usefulness came a threatening shroud. Here, he fit right in.
A tap grabbed Kantal’s ear, and he turned to see the aide lean in once more. When he pulled away, the clammy sense of foreboding hung around Kantal’s neck, restricting his breath.
“My lord asks if you are in need of refreshment.”
He exhaled and pulled his hand from the belt he’d been fiddling. His king nodded passively, and with the subtle elevation of a hand, curtains were thrown aside at the perimiters of the room, revealing a battalion of servants. They scurried about, turning the vast table into an exquisite example of casual feasting. The only stretch of polished – what was this table made from? Bone? – that remained uncluttered was the section that held the wide map of the near world. They would be needing that.
The room was incredible – taller than most houses; lined with pillars; draped with a host of varying but equally dour family banners. At the far end, behind the Gorfinian king, the room was entirely open, bare to the inner circle of Maegwyn. The views from up here were frankly incredible – Kantal thought he could even see to the northern lands of Rhagastos, though he couldn’t be certain. This was the old centre of the Mikaetan Empire at its greatest, and it was also the place where Delfin had challenged her father and splintered the country that Kantal now served. The place reeked of history, incredible stories infecting him with every breath, and he felt overwhelmed to be part of it.
If he needed any other reason to sweat, then the sheer weight of the surroundings would do it. Unfortunately, none of the other guests seemed to share his nerves.
If anything, the final table-guest – the man opposite Kantal’s king and to the left of the tyrant – was the most agitated of all. And rightly so, for he was the grandest of the lot. He wore an over-elaborate crown of dubious construction, and he fidgeted with a plethora of rings, each one housing jewels that appeared to be of great value – though to the trained eye, were actually cheap replicas. He was a large man, and as one of those in attendance without a hood, Kantal could take in his features. He was softer than he’d expected.
“A fine spread, lord.”
As he spoke the words, his chin quivered. Not the sign of a strong man. His face was smooth and unblemished, his cheeks rosy red like a virgin’s. His eyes danced with something sour, and every time he spoke, he did so with a deeply retrenched edge. He portrayed power through his dress and his actions, but he could not hide the weakness – not truly. This man was the polished symbol of Mikaetan decay; he was the Emperor.
And this was the seat of his ancestors. He must be fuming.
The servants continued to scuttle about, darting back and forth from the wings of the room, and conversation continued around them; fear was a powerful tool. Kantal gulped again, and he thought he could sense the man opposite snigger. He straightened his back instinctively. The bastard.
The aide pressed the direction of the discussion.
“Your Highness, Lord of the esteemed lands of Delfinia – what is it we can help with?”
Everyone in the room knew why they were here, but it appeared that the Gorfinians wanted to labour the point. Only the Mikaetan Emperor seemed oblivious to the forced tension, gluttonous as he was upon the spread before him. Kantal’s king wiped his mouth, removing a dribble of wine, and then stood to address the audience. Rather formal, Kantal thought, but then what did he know? He was way beyond his comforts.
As the King of Delfinia passed Kantal on his way to the map, he offered the slightest touch. It cut right through him, and Kantal cowed under the cloaked gaze of the tyrant. He wanted this over.
“We come asking for assistance. We come for your help.”
The statement was simple, clear, but in a room-full of vipers, it was guaranteed to shock. The Emperor slammed a flabby fist onto the table, and stated his objection. That wobbly strike impacted Kantal even more than the sharp steel of a Mandahoi could.
And you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi.
“And why should we offer you help? What has Delfinia ever done for us – apart from splintering our great union in the first place?”
His king stumbled over his attempt to regain control.
“Your Excellency, if you please. Will you let me explain―”
“What sort of help is it that you’re after? I have an idea, but please elaborate.”
This was the worst of it – it was like asking a cripple for a leg-up.
“We want military support.”
“Ha! I have a mind to leave now.” The Emperor rose from his seat and feigned leaving, the greed and hunger in his eyes betraying the false intentions. He was ushered back by the calm palm of Gorfin, an unnecessary measure given the preposterous transparency of the Emperor’s feint. “We have pleaded for assistance from Delfinia for centuries, and what have we earned? Nothing. Not even a damned response. Do not forget, Highness, it is Mikaeta that still holds the flood of the Centro from your gates. Never forget this.”
The King fought his corner well. “And do not forget, Emperor, that it is Delfinia that keeps you free of the burnt people. We too have borders to hold.”
“The burnt people are nothing compared to the Centro―”
“Please!” The aide spoke in response to the Gorfinian king’s elevated hand. “Let the king of Delfinia speak.”
The Emperor nestled back into his comfortable chair, firing a spiky glance at the usurper as he rammed more food into his mouth. The Gorfinian king’s head did not even move, and there was no sign of emotion – how could there be in a black space? That was the power of Gorfin.
“Thank you, Lord. As I was saying, we request your military support for an assault on Ahan.” A disrespecting snort from the Emperor, but Kantal’s king continued. This was Kantal’s plan, his genius, and each detail made him shudder inexplicably. He was being laid out for all to see, and it thoroughly discomfited him.
“We have established a plan of immense merit, but what we have in ingenuity, we lack in resources. However, with your help, we believe that we can make the move that will crack that nut – we believe that we can take Ahan.”
Kantal was sweating. His hands pumped uncontrollably, and he was mouthing with his king. These were his words.
But the Emperor was clearly not impressed – hardly surprising – and Gorfin remained still. Intentions laid out, it was time for the challenge. He wanted to crawl under the table, even though the eyes were not on him.
It was the Emperor who staked the first objection.
“And how many have tried in the past? Ahan has been a locked realm for five hundred years, and yet you come here with promises of success. How naive, Highness. You do realise that we three nations once formed an alliance, but even with such combined authority, entry was denied.”
“Yes, indeed, and we shall form an alliance once more, but this time with success. Please, I implore you to entertain the proposal at the very least.”
The Emperor was about to speak, but he was stalled by the Gorfinian king. He leaned into his aide, who spoke on his behalf.
“What makes you think that you have a successful design where all others have failed?”
“Because I believe in the man who came up with it.”
Oh no – that wasn’t part of his speech. The king had all the facts, so why would he alter the focus? Kantal could now sense the lingering eyes upon him.
“And this is the man that conjured this miracle?” Each word of the aide speared Kantal’s faltering confidence, and he could feel his face darken in embarrassment. This was not how it was supposed to be. He was never designed for this.
The king nodded subtly, and the transfer was complete. He had to justify himself, and that would be tough. He had never managed to do that – not even to himself.
“And you are?”
When Kantal got around to speaking, he knew he would sound common, and that was the final nail in his resolve – he could not spar with these oiled serpents, masters of tongue and politics. What right did he have to talk back? He puckered his arse, succumbing to that same cowardice that identified his childhood. His hands fidgeted, and when he did manage to blurt out his name, it sounded childish. Oh so childish.
“I am General Adnan ap Kantal of the Delfinian army.”
And foolish. That too. Definitely foolish.
Tension rose even further and he gulped – he knew they could see it in him; knew they were sniggering at his impotence. When the Gorfinian king raised his fist, Kantal assumed it was for the ear of his aide. Instead he thumped it down with stony authority, noise crashing through the room, shredding Kantal’s residual nerve. He was a ghost now, and the aide’s words sliced into him.
“Tell me, general. What makes you think that you have earned the right to gamble with my Lord’s property?”
It was a good question, and if Kantal couldn’t answer this, then he deserved to fail. He looked to his own remarkable story.