Finn, the largest man, carried two with ease; Cobb, squat and broad, insisted on a pair and lagged at the back, one box tottering on top of the other. Eli and Salter made jokes as they sauntered in the middle; tall Eli wedged a smaller box beneath his arm, while Salter swayed side-to-side thanks to the heavy box against his chest.
The sun had almost set and the camp’s huge tents, restless horses and bustling army all cast long shadows. The four friends walked along the main path through the camp, between campfires circled with men who ate and told stories and around wide, long tents that housed weapons stores and other supplies. Eventually they reached the tall fence that divided their world.
On one side was the busy, cramped, smelly mass of an army, and on the other was the serenity of the King’s compound: powerful, well-dressed men, smart tents with fluttering silk standards, the empire’s finest foods.
The friends crossed into the King’s compound and headed down a narrow path, trying to watch the ground. They tripped, occasionally, struggling to avoid the ruts that had been hewn by carts and now peeked through the worn grass.
Finn shouldered his way into the pantry tent, almost dropping the boxes as he let his tatty bag slip from his shoulder to the floor. He regained his balance, placed the boxes on the floor between two tall shelving units and crowbarred the first one open. It held a dozen bottles lined in neat rows, each with gold foil around the tops.
Cobb followed Finn inside, dumped his box next to the others and slumped into a chair by the entrance, picking up a dirty bottle from a nearby table and drinking deeply. Eli came in, put his box next to the rest, and then ducked outside. Salter followed suit and headed outside, then took one of Eli’s cigarettes and lit up. The three were weary; the boxes arrived at the far side of the camp, and they had carried them back as one last favour to Finn. They had finished a long shift, and were eager for rest, but Finn had talked them into helping.
Finn clattered around the pantry, and emerged from the narrow corridor between the shelves with three bottles balanced in the crooks of his arms. He arranged seven glasses on a glistening, ornate tray that stood on a scuffed, old cabinet near the door, and began to fill them.
A rivulet of firewine trickled down a glass; three contained the warming, amber-coloured drink. Two metal tankards held ale, topped with foam, and one tankard was gilded. The two smallest glasses were brimmed with golden Eshah. The latter liquid, golden in colour, caught Cobb’s eye from across the entrance. The Eshah swirled around ice, and the last dregs slid down the side of the glass, taking their time, looking more like honey than liquour. It came from across the empire, and its exotic reputation afforded a high price.
Valuable drinks for important people. Finn wiped the glasses and picked up the tray, trying not to spill anything, while Cobb looked up at him and started on another bottle.
“Hurry up, Finn. You’re late”, said Cobb, slumped in his scrappy chair and smiling at his friend.
“No thanks to you, with your bloody bravado. Two boxes? Really? You’re the shortest of all of us.”
“You needed them here, and if you can carry two then there’s no reason I can’t.” Cobb took another swig. “And besides, that bravado has kept you alive on more than one occasion. How about when I got you out of that pub because that landlord didn’t appreciate your thoughts about his hospitality? Or when you thought you could get us those new swords? You complain about my bravado, but…”
Salter poked his head into the tent and grinned as one of Eli’s cigarettes dangled from his mouth. “He was late ten minutes ago!”
Finn spun around, shirt whirling as glasses slid on the tray. “I’m not late”, he barked, “I’m almost on time. Close enough. Sort of.” He rolled his eyes. His friends could relax, but Finn would be working all night.
Cobb looked incredulously at his friend’s scruffy clothes. Finn sighed, put down the tray, and tucked in his shirt. He straightened his tie and pulled a jacket down from one of the shelves. Eli laughed and extravagantly held the tent’s flaps open, Salter grinned with his mouth half-full of teeth, and Cobb slapped Finn on the back as he walked past. Finn steadied himself and rolled his eyes, and left his friends to enjoy their evening together.
The camp circled outwards for miles from the King’s compound on top of the hill, but Finn only had to go next door. Finn, Cobb, Salter and Eli formed the King’s Regent Guard – a fancy name with a proud history that now attracted derision, disgust and disdain.
It started ten years ago with a series of mishaps and demotions that left the four friends as little more than the King’s cupbearers. Now they were forced to live in the corner of his compound, saddled with the most menial tasks, and never trusted with anything important. It wasn’t much of a life, but it had seemed a better option than death.
Outside of the compound’s wooden walls, the war had stalled. It had been a productive decade spent roaming the empire, conquering lesser cities and inferior kingdoms. But now the King’s army, the empire’s biggest, had bedded in. Siege.
Finn was outside, now, and he could hear faint voices of disdain from inside the King’s tent. The King and his confidantes were talking, planning, eating and drinking, their plummy pronunciation already softened by alcohol.
The King’s council tent was the second biggest in the royal compound, three times wider than the extensive pantry, and twice as tall. It was topped with the King’s standard and was held up by dozens of thick ropes. The King’s flag was flown thousands of times across the camp: a wide flag with a diagonal slash that divided red and yellow halves, and two swords crossed in front of an imposing, pointed wooden shield.
Guards were posted at every corner. The tent’s interior was plastered with maps of battles won and cities conquered, and plans that were scribbled with notes, torn with rage and stained with blood and booze.
The King had every scrap stuck to the wall as a monument to his conquests, and they travelled everywhere with him. Layers of paper marked the passage of time, with occasional failures buried beneath overwhelming victories.
The siege had lasted a year, and it felt like failure. The King was sick of failure, sick of being tired. He was sick of not moving, sick of his tent, sick of his counsellors, and sick of his wife. He was sick of the city on the horizon and every man, woman, child and soldier inside, and couldn’t be bothered to look at the sickened faces in his camp’s overflowing hospitals. He was sick of everyone in the camp, and everyone knew it.
Finn walked across from the pantry, trying not to spill any of the expensive liquid. Four guards stood outside the tent’s entrance. Finn nodded and took a deep breath as the guard opened the flap. He had the army’s lowest rank, and he never felt comfortable when serving drinks to the empire’s most powerful man.
Seven people made the large tent feel cramped. Body heat and angry debate had raised the temperature by several degrees, and the candles dotted around the room had guttered out and splattered wax onto thick rugs.
The seven sat at a wide, heavy-set table. Five counsellors sat and stared at the maps anchored to the oak table with empty glasses, and a scribe examined his notes in his ledger, afraid to look up. Aside from the table and chairs, only a large dresser furnished the room. The ornate dresser sat on a platform with an imposing chair that was crafted from thick, dark wood, larger than the rest. The candlelight danced faint lights across a broad shield and pair of crossed wooden swords that rose from the chair’s back. A large, exasperated figure with hard eyes and a close-trimmed beard sprawled across the throne.
He sighed, looked at his empty tankard, and then at his parchment walls. His voiced was raised, rasped. “If the scouts aren’t coming back with anything useful, Travay, then send different scouts. Tell them to get closer, to take more risks, and warn them that I don’t like my time being w-“
The King looked away as Finn stepped inside the tent and the flap zipped closed. Finn nodded his head towards the ground, barely lifted it, and began to distribute drinks. The King received his golden-ringed tankard first, and then Finn placed a glass of firewine in front of dark-haired Travay, his hands buried inside deep, crumpled sleeves.
He set a glass of golden Eshah to another lord, Cobbett, who nodded a small thanks and revealed a balding head, and gave a tankard to a stern man in military dress, his chest decorated with a line of medals. More counsellors were given glasses, and the mousy-looking scribe was left with nothing.
The King took a cursory sip before standing up in one powerful motion. He opened the top drawer of the dresser. He didn’t reach inside, not yet; he leant on the dresser, sipped again, and glared at the council. Finn stepped backwards, towards the exit.
“What’s the latest from Viden?”
Lord Cobbett leaned forward, trailing a fingertip around the top of his glass. “Little progress. His team has been working through the night, but the rifle is difficult. It is old and fragile, the last of its kind. Viden’s engineers struggle to understand its mechanisms. Forming it into a larger weapon is a long way off, I fear.”
“Good for them,” said King Cerph. “But what exactly has Viden been doing?”
“Supervising, my liege. Watching, analysing, studying. He has talent, but you know he struggles these days. He’s an old man, Cerph.”
“He can’t be doing much, Cobbett. He’s barely even looked at the rifle today. I should know.”
His lords gasped as the King drew the rifle from inside the drawer and pointed it towards the ceiling. He gazed at the shaft, eyes travelling up and down, before he let the barrel drop to the top of the dresser. The snap of metal crashing against the wood caused the lords to flinch. His other hand gripped the butt.
Sharlez moved forward. “You know I respect you, my lord, but the rifle… it’s far too fragile to be here. It’s our only hope. There is no need to show it off to us.”
Cerph looked at the rifle and spoke slowly. “I know, Sharlez. But I’m the King. It’s mine. Viden will be snoring on his stool by now. His idiotic scholars and engineers won’t spot anything overnight. I wonder if they’ve even spotted that it’s gone.”
Cobbett tensed a hand around his glass as King Cerph swung the barrel. “My lord. We’re surrounded by fifty thousand troops. Dozens of guards stand outside. Silverdale sleeps. The rifle needs to be studied and kept safe. We have limited time and resources, and we gain nothing with it here.”
“And he gains nothing with it there. Everything about this damned thing is already written down. If Viden is no closer to progress, we are no closer to breaking this damned siege. Silverdale still resists, and our plans are nothing more than the paper on my walls and the ideas in his damned head. If I’m going to have to stay on this damned hill and wait for everyone else, then I shall enjoy the rifle to the best of its abilities.”
The King glared at the lords, who sunk into their chairs. The scribe paused and looked up from his ledger.
“You may retire for the evening, scribe. We’re not going to make any progress tonight.” The King drew his tankard to his mouth and leaned his head back, gulping, and then dismissed the writer with a wave of his hand.
Finn inched towards the exit, and made to slip out after the scribe.
King Cerph pointed the barrel over the table, towards the exit. His navy eyes narrowed towards the young Regent Guard.
“What’s your name?”
“Finn, my l… l… liege.”
“It’s my lord. Finn. Solid name. Trustworthy. Why were you late?”
Finn inched towards the exit and glanced at the floor. “I, your lo-liege. Lord. I was trying to find the best drinks for you and your counsellors.”
“That’s my personal pantry. It’s the best that my empire has to offer. Every drop, every crumb, is worth more than you. Looking after it is a privilege that someone like you should not be afforded. You almost cost me an entire kingdom because you broke your oaths for that silly friendship, and you’re lucky to be alive. All of you are. You’re lucky to all be serving your King, too. When I ask for my drinks at a certain time I expect them.”
“It won’t happen again, my liege. I assure you.”
The King gripped the barrel of the gun in his left hand and leant forward, planting his right foot on the strut of the table. His right index finger twitched.
The tent flashed, and Finn crumpled.
King Cerph lowered the barrel. “No, Finn. I assure you.”
Cobb swayed in his chair, looking at nothing in particular through the bottom of his empty glass, while Eli and Salter chatted outside. They’d grown used to the view down the hill, but it remained imposing: a handful of tents nearby, and then the spiked wooden barricade that circled the King’s compound, its walkway paced by guards.
Beyond the barricade lie tents, makeshift stables, fluttering flags and thousands of drifting smoke columns. They littered the land until the gentle incline flattened, and the entire camp shimmered with distant movement in the dusk.
Beyond the camp lie war’s wasteland. Flat and empty, weeds grew across its untended farms and its windmills listlessly turned. The people had retreated behind Silverdale’s famous walls, the thickest and tallest in the empire, and had taken all the food they could carry when word of Cerph’s inevitable arrival had reached the city’s scouts.
Silverdale loomed over the flats. To Cobb, Eli, Salter and the rest of the army, their ultimate aim was to take the capital, the city that stretched across the horizon in front of the rich mountains that gave the city its name. Its walls ran for miles, and its towers rose higher than almost any in the empire, but none of them could match the castle that lay at the middle of the city. The fortress was Cerph’s toughest target, and it was surrounded by his biggest hurdle.
Cobb stood up, stretched, and picked up Finn’s bag. The three gathered their jackets and turned to leave.
The noise burst from the tent.
The three turned, and froze. A guard trudged backwards through the tent-flap, bent, hands around a pair of ankles. The three recognised the mud around the bottom of the trousers, and then they saw the crimson ruin of Finn’s face. One eye stared at Cobb, Salter and Eli, its blue pupil vivid amid red, but the other had vanished along with almost half of Finn’s face. Blood gushed and left a trail that stained the earth.
The three rushed forward, but more guards blocked their path. Cobb barreled into a shoulder and was knocked back as tears welled in his eyes; Eli sunk, and Salter pushed against a guard and was shoved to the floor. He propped himself up on his elbow, looked down, and slammed his hand into the mud, shouting out in frustration. Tears trickled from his eyes.
Finn’s corpse was dragged around the side of the tent. The guards hauled Cobb, Eli and Salter to their feet, turned them around, and pushed them with the pommels of their swords. Cobb turned to protest; his face was stung by a slap. Eli stumbled, numb, and Salter walked as wet streams washed dirt from his face.
The guards escorted the group of to their small, square tent as the men sniffed, shuddered, gasped and cried. The tent sat in a muddy hollow at the perimeter of the King’s compound. Beds occupied each corner, with trunks housing what few personal belongings the Regent Guard were allowed to keep. There was a table, two chairs, a shallow trough for bathing. The four of them lived little better than animals, but they’d lived together, and they’d got used to it.
They’d been soldiers at the start of the war, linked by their ascension through the army’s ranks as much as their friendship. Their final demotion to the Regent Guard was a bitter blow; former subordinates spat at them, most of their possessions were taken, and they were put to work. They had stuck together for a decade.
Cobb, Salter and Eli trudged in, wandered to their beds, and collapsed. For the first time in ten years, one bunk was empty. Finn had been robbed from his friends, stolen from the family he wasn’t allowed to see, dismissed for the last time. They were at the bottom of the heap, but Cerph had still managed to make things worse. The Regent Guard. Cupbearers.
Finn had been one of them, and he had been disposable. So were they.