Within an hour, they made it to the far reaches of the forest. At the tree line, Kroll brought them to a halt at the edge of a seemingly impassable swamp. Upwards of fifty Malaxian warriors were in an encampment and at least as many merchants with horses and carts by their tents. Kroll ordered his men to make camp away from the others, and walked over to speak to some soldiers.
While Kroll was in discussion and the rest of his men busily made a fire, Ned stood and looked out to the swamp. Mist hovered over the waters. A steel-grey sky swept over the landscape. High walls of solid rock with ramparts loomed on the other side of the swampland. Rising above were turrets and other buildings. They were in a far-flung region of the dark North. Ned turned as Kroll approached.
“What’s over there?” Ned asked.
“So why are all these people camped here?”
“None of your business. Just help with the camp and keep your mouth shut,” Kroll replied and walked away.
During the evening, as Kroll and his men sat around a fire, Ned looked at Malaxia and noticed a number of fires sprawled along the perimeter walls. He saw Kroll in discussion with Big Nose. Kroll looked up and called out.
“Boy, come over here!!” He was smiling. “You kept up with us and even pushed us on toward the end. And we got here a day early.” He looked at Big Nose. “Has he earned the right to live?”
“Okay, okay,” Big Nose resentfully admitted. “He can run, but the boy is not one of us. He’s too small to fight.”
Kroll thumped Ned on the back and ordered him to be chained to a tree. Every day for over a week they waited on the near side of the swamp. Ned did not know why. The iron clamp around his neck was beginning to worsen the sores. The boy spent his time watching the soldiers and making a mental note of the immediate surroundings. Swamp to the North and forest to the South. In both other directions, the forest and swamp spread as far as the eye could see. Late one afternoon, soldiers and merchants alike broke camp and packed everything away. Excited murmurings dominated the clearing as a full moon shone the darkening sky.
Kroll strolled over to his men. “Perfect conditions. Form a line over there.”
Ned followed the soldiers and lined up. When everyone had been organised, they were led into the swamp. Ned stayed close to the warrior in front and only walked in his footsteps. He could see deeper water to each side, but slushed through the shallows they were being led upon. An eerie mist hovered over the swamp. After what seemed an age, they reached dry land and the line of fires spread along the perimeter. The thick, forbidding granite walls of Malaxia rose above.
Large oak doors creaked open and both the soldiers and merchants walked through. Ned stayed close to Kroll. Inside were narrow streets enclosed by the walls of buildings. All was made from the same dark stone. The streets were wet and water dripped from the walls. They marched into a vast open courtyard where hordes of warriors formed. After a long wait, the garrison stamped its feet in unison. The noise echoed against the walls. A cold wind whipped around the courtyard.
Kroll pointed to a figure at the edge and beckoned him over. Ned was shepherded toward the jailor. He took the chain attached to Ned’s neck and pulled him over to one side.
“Sell him… I expect my money in a week,” Kroll growled at the man.