Thursday, 23 July 2009

"The Heirs of the Magi" - Another sample chapter

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The chapter from 'The Heirs of the Magi' that I published on my blog the other week, met with a good response. But with it being the first chapter, it was a little slow in narrative, being mainly made up of dialogue and description to set the scene.

So I've decided to post another chapter. This one relates events a little later on in the book, but still at the start of the story, before the Magi's heirs have returned to Yvoronay. It tells of an incident involving Dern Anchar (mentioned in the first chapter - Mas Kellack's great niece, who had become one of The Brethren.) This chapter contains a little less dialogue, but a lot more action, involving battles with the Lhij invaders. It also introduces the concepts of the 'talents' shared by the Magi and The Brethren, and also gives more details about the free horses, and especially the elite members of their kind who align themselves with the Magi.

Again, this is in draft form. I'm sure there's much wrong with it that editing may put right, but it's the stuff that can't be corrected by editing I'm concerned about, so as usual, I'm hungry for comment and criticism. If the criticism is constructive, all the better, but say what you think because more than anything, I want honest criticism.
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Dern Anchar was exhausted. She sat slumped over the neck of her mount. Thankfully, the recent skirmish had been quick; her adversaries were gone for now, some of them killed but most dispersed. She feared that the survivors would return once they had regrouped, and being realistic, she was resigned to her belief that they would. Now was probably her only chance to escape before they did. The sun had gone down, and though the Lhij had better night vision than she had, there would be a fair chance of evading them if she could place some distance between herself and this place before they returned.

There was no sign of her companions. They had been gone when she'd first re-emerged from the ravine below, and she had ridden to this place in the hope of relocating them, but she’d had no luck before she’d encountered her assailants. She tried her best to look around in the darkness, fearing that she may find evidence of their fate, but saw nothing except for the smouldering remains of the rat people she'd just despatched. It seemed that her comrades had either retreated, or had left to pursue more of the Lhij before she'd been able to rejoin them. She paused to recollect her thoughts and remembered the events that had brought her to this place...

~o~O~o~

Her party had earlier travelled across the southern plains to the west. They were a small group sent out to investigate the strength of the desert dwellers' forces in that area.

During recent battles, despite the Brethren's undoubted superiority in force of arms and organisation, the enemy's overwhelming advantage in numbers had caused them to be repeatedly pushed back, and they had been forced to regroup on numerous occasions. Each time they moved to counter-attack, they had found the Lhij stronger in numbers on their western flank, as though their purpose was to move northwest, toward the mountains.

Reaching the mountains was unlikely to give the desert horde any advantage in itself. Here, the western range consisted only of rocky mounds, cliffs and outcrops with crevices between, but the mountains soon became impassable, with higher peaks which couldn't be scaled, further to the north.

They’d started their expedition during the late afternoon, and it was mid-morning on the second day before they encountered anything of significance. Her party had spent all morning riding west toward the higher ground from the lower plains. It had been hard going, travelling at speed over such terrain: hard for them, but even harder for their mounts. They had reached the more rugged land nearer to where the plains met the foothills at the edge of the mountains, when they found evidence of the Lhij in force. They’d seen dust rising from the ground well to their south, and when they’d found ground high enough to afford them a better view, they had confirmed that there was a small group of Lhij advancing toward them, some miles away. They’d been surprised to find the enemy this far north, even in these limited numbers, and had thought the discovery significant enough to immediately despatch a rider back to their main forces. Dern Anchar was sure the messenger would have got through, since their journey until that point had been uneventful. The remainder of the party decided to manoeuvre so as to surround the Lhij forces on three sides.

Kasilkan, the Somnehlian plainsman who commanded the party, seemed to decide their strategy almost immediately. Dern Anchar admired him, especially his ability to think so quickly, to make decisions under pressure and to take control in situations like these. He issued directions to the others in his group: “Dern Anchar and Jassan: We must divide our forces, and you two are the best suited to each take command of a unit. I’d like you both to lead your groups further west initially.

“Jassan, you should hold the ground to the north of the enemy to prevent them from passing, but be prepared to attack should the need arise.” He paused and scanned the surrounding terrain, as though checking details before he continued: “I want you, Dern Anchar to continue onward working your way around to the target’s western side. Jassan, take ten Brethren with you; I'll lead twenty to circle behind them to the south.”

He turned his attention to Dern Anchar, placing one hand on her shoulder. ”You should take the remainder. That will be a group near equal in size to mine: We suspect that their objective is probably to the west so we'll need to strengthen our attack from that direction.”

He addressed all of the Brethren then: “From what we can tell, they are an isolated group, small, no more than fifty to a hundred of them, but there may still be greater numbers out there yet undiscovered, so when we attack it must be swift; we must despatch them all, or push them toward our forces in the east, before they can reinforce. My group will attack first; we will summon fire to rain down upon them, then we’ll harry them with our archers.” He paused again, and stroked his chin: a mannerism recognised by Dern Anchar and her colleagues to indicate that he was thinking carefully, and weighing all the possibilities. It was almost as though he was putting himself in the Lhij’s place, determining what their response might be. “They will flee toward the north and west,” he continued eventually, “so you should follow up immediately with similar attacks from your forces Dern Anchar.”

She grimaced. She knew how effective it was to use the talent of summoning to bring fire down upon her enemies, but she also knew the cost of it in the effort the summoner needed to exercise, how it almost consumed them, leaving them little better than exhausted for minutes afterwards. She didn’t question Kasilkan’s instructions. She was confident that his strategy was sound, and conceded that they had to use all the weapons and skills at their disposal, whatever her reservations might be.

Kasilkan continued: “Jassan, your purpose is to prevent the enemy from escaping to the north. You should set a couple of your Brethren to summon a wall of flame. Two of you should be able to maintain it, leaving the others free to protect the summoners with arrows or with less conventional methods.”

The wall of flame was a more overwhelming use of the summoning talent, exerting only a slightly lesser toll than the rain of fire when first summoned, but requiring uninterrupted concentration by the summoner, for as long as the wall was required to be maintained.

Over the past few years, the Brethren had discovered many of the talents they now possessed. Scholars within the mountain cities had identified them as being those talents traditionally possessed only by the Magi themselves. Working closely with the scholars and with reference to their records and historic accounts, they each had mastered powers they’d never even imagined previously, let alone ever considered possessing.

The talent of summoning had been one of the first that they’d discovered and was the most effective in battle. It involved calling forth the elements and reshaping them into forms that they could control and use against their enemies. Summoning of fire was the most destructive of the forms of elemental summoning that the Brethren had yet discovered, destructive both in its permanent effects to the target, and in its temporary effects on the summoner. The rain of fire and the wall of flame were two of its forms and were both perilous if not controlled carefully. Only summoning a ball of fire was more dangerous, since achieving this at anything but short range was practically impossible, and when summoning an immense ball of exploding fire close by, the summoner and nearby allies were almost as likely to be consumed as were any of the enemy it was directed at. The Brethren only ever summoned a ball of fire as an absolute last resort.

There were a number of other elemental forces the Brethren had learned to summon; most with less devastating effects than the summoning of fire, but also less effective as weapons in battle. They were however, well suited to use as a form of defence and it was these that Kasilkan had referred to as 'less conventional methods.'

Just after midday, Kasilkan and his twenty rode southeast, in order to circle behind the unsuspecting Lhij unit. They travelled slowly and carefully, each using their talent of illusion in combination to attempt to pass by the enemy unseen, while the greater force under command of Dern Anchar and of Jassan, another  Somnehlian member of the Brethren, travelled swiftly west.

It was late afternoon, before Dern Anchar left Jassan and his smaller force and rode onward toward the rockier terrain at the foothills of the western range. “Remember Jassan,” she said as she left, “Wait for evidence that I have attacked before you set your walls of fire. The enemy will likely flee north when confronted with mine and Kasilkan’s attacks on two sides, so I want you to surprise them as they do. Don’t give them time to think, and they’ll see themselves having no choice but to attempt an escape to the east.”

Later, as Dern Anchar's party rode toward their planned position, they encountered an obstacle: A deep ravine stretching from the mountains in the northwest and bending southward and eastward. It appeared that it had been a river in earlier times, and she half remembered her own people talking about the ‘dead river’ to the south. When hearing of it, she’d always imagined a shallow channel winding its way across the plains but if indeed this was the dead river she’d heard about, it must have once carried a torrent since the ravine was deep and the rocky sides were steep, the dried up river bed being many feet below them.

A lone rider was despatched to follow the ravine to the south to determine if it was passable downstream, or what would once have been downstream. He soon returned with good news: Only six miles further on, the terrain dropped off somewhat and it was possible, even on horseback, to descend the north eastern bank. A short ride further east, the opposite bank was easily scalable by the mounted Brethren.

The party rode quickly toward the passing point, being aware that speed was important if they were to return westward after the crossing, so as to be in position by the time Kasilkan's attack began.

Once the dead river was crossed, they retraced their route, on the opposite side of the ravine now, to where it bent toward the mountains, and then they continued their ride westward to arrive at their planned position while the sun was still hanging low in the evening sky.

Kasilkan's attack began a little while before sunset. The darkening sky suddenly appeared alight as fire rained down upon the position they knew the Lhij would be occupying by now. As predicted the Lhij fled north at first.

Dern Anchar hoped that when the enemy encountered the dead river, they'd be forced to the east before they even encountered Jassan's forces, but instead the Lhij forces headed west directly toward her party.

As they advanced, they were unaware of the resistance awaiting them, so when Dern Anchar attacked, the Rat men were taken completely by surprise. The battle went in favour of the Brethren, and it wasn’t long before the Lhij retreated to the east. Then suddenly they unexpectedly turned southward. Dern Anchar was surprised: she hadn't expected them to retreat straight into the path of Kasilkan's forces.

But Kasilkan's forces didn't attack, and when Dern Anchar had composed herself after the initial skirmish she noticed that though there were still signs in the night sky of Kasilkan's efforts, the fire rain was now falling much further away than earlier. She realised that Kasilkan's party were engaging a second enemy force, further south, even nearer to the edge of the desert.

She had to make a decision: To maintain her position, and keep to the original plan, or to pursue the retreating Lhij before they could form a scissor attack, which would surely lead to the defeat of Kasilkan and the other Brethren to the south.

She called over one of her comrades: “We're going to Kasilkan's aid. When we get to the crossing point in the dead river, I want you to cross and ride to Jassan. Bring him back here to occupy this position. The river itself will surely be enough alone to provide a northern barrier. Should the Lhij get a chance to return this way, Jassan's reduced forces should be enough to hold here.” She continued: “The rest of us will leave you at the crossing point and pursue the Lhij force before they can attack Kasilkan's rear. If they won’t retreat eastward on their own, we’ll try to drive them that way by force.”

Within moments each of the Brethren in her party were mounted, and they galloped hurriedly in pursuit of their enemy.


~o~O~o~

Kasilkan was surprised by the attack of the second Lhij force from the south, but by the time their attack came, the Rat men he'd ambushed had already begun to flee in panic, north at first then west as he’d expected them to, toward where Kasilkan was confident that Dern Anchar's force could contain them.

He quickly amended his strategy and ordered his comrades to head further south, to meet the new oncoming desert force, rather than to stand and wait for them to attack. This was his one mistake for, as became apparent within moments, this new force of Lhij was much larger than he had expected. He knew then that sooner rather than later, his Brethren would be compelled to retreat, and it occurred to him, that unless Dern Anchar had despatched the other Lhij force entirely, his route of escape may be cut off completely.


~o~O~o~


It didn't take long for Dern Anchar's mounted Brethren to ride down the retreating Lhij. After the messenger departed across the dead river toward Jassan, they caught the rat men they pursued a mile or two further on, near to the southern edge of the ravine. They attacked immediately, in an attempt to prevent the Lhij from advancing on Kasilkan's position directly south. Their attempts were successful. The enemy made no attempt to escape, but stood and fought instead. This was unusual for the Lhij: From experience of recent battles, the rat men’s armies were not known to defend a position unless it was absolutely necessary. It occurred to Dern Anchar that the Lhij were trying to prevent the same fate for themselves that currently threatened Kasilkan: they would rather fight here than risk being caught on two sides if the fighting moved further south.

Seventeen in her force of Brethren rode into battle against some seventy Lhij. There had been over a hundred in the original force, but Kasilkan's efforts and her own had thinned those numbers somewhat. The close quarters of the fighting restricted the Brethren from relying on their special ability to summon fire, so the battle consisted of hand to hand fighting, the Lhij having the advantage of greater numbers, but the Brethren having the greater manoeuvrability of being mounted.

The Lhij were armed with fierce saw-edged swords and carried heavy shields, though had no other protection in the way of armour. The Brethren each carried a sword, and wore light leather armour, though their talents allowed them to maintain an additional shield, enveloping them completely but invisibly, and able to deflect all but the most accurate and brutal of attacks.

Dern Anchar was never comfortable with a sword, being more at ease with her bow, which at this proximity was useless. She fought in vain to get the better of the three rat men who assailed her, inflicting minor injuries on them but being pressed back little by little. It was a relief when eventually, two of her companions came to her assistance, killing one of her Lhij attackers and effectively relieving her of the onslaughts from the other two.

She swung her mount around in order to ride back into the battle. It bothered her to be riding such a noble animal as this. At first she had resisted using one of the free horses as a mount, and had ridden horses supplied by the Somnehlians. But those animals however well trained, didn't last long in battle. Eventually she had taken one of the free horses, and they had been together ever since. She had cried the night that she'd used her talent of compulsion to force him to succumb to her as his rider. Even if her Loniantehl upbringing hadn't taught her how unnatural it was for a free horse to be used as a battle mount, she knew it for a fact now. Even if she hadn't always believed how wrong it was to ride a free horse against its will, she was convinced of it now.

Throughout the battles they had experienced, she had expected to sense the discomfort and the anguish of the enslaved horse, and she did, but what was worse for her, was that she also detected a real feeling of torment from the horse. The nature of compulsion was that the subjects of it were not just forced to act against their will: their will was actually changed so that they felt they wanted to obey. Unlike many of the other Brethren, she had a concern for the welfare of her mount, probably because of her upbringing, possibly due to the guilt she felt in taking him into battle. Her talents allowed her to know when her mount was injured or weary. But as well as sensing his physical well-being or lack of it, she was also aware of the agony deep within him, the torment as part of him resisted the compulsion with all his effort, whilst another part of him surrendered to it and welcomed it.

As she swung the horse around, he stumbled. This was unusual for such an animal as this; the free horses were usually sure footed even in the most extreme of circumstances. She struggled to stay on his back as his hind legs slipped backwards, first one, then the other. It was at this point that she realised that in turning the horse, she'd inadvertently led him to the very edge of the ravine and now his hind legs were slipping down into it. The horse fell, and she fell with him. For a moment or so she managed to stay upon his back, but then she parted company with the horse. She tumbled downward, and saw the horse following close behind her, struggling in vain to regain his footing as they both fell the fifteen or twenty feet down the steep ravine edge to the dry rocky bed below. If the river had not been long dead, the water may possibly have been deep enough to have broken her fall, but as it was, there was nothing to put an end to her falling until her head finally hit the dry river bed and she lapsed into unconsciousness.

She wasn't surprised to see the horse still there when she awoke. She was a little surprised to see him standing, but then after checking herself for injuries she realised that if she'd survived the fall unscathed save for the large bump on her head, then the horse most certainly would have. The nature of the compulsion was that the horse wouldn't attempt to escape even when she was asleep or unconscious. He would be with her until she chose to release him. That was something she'd considered doing many times, but each time she'd realised that she needed him to ensure her own survival. She would be lost in battle without him.

She knew by instinct that she hadn't been unconscious for long, but she could no longer hear the noise of the battle from above. Maybe the Brethren had defeated the Lhij, but if so, why hadn't they come searching for her? Maybe they'd forced the rat men further south, out of her earshot. She quickly mounted the horse. She would have to ride swiftly to the west to the point where she could climb the bank, and then eastward again and then south to locate her companions.

A few minutes later, she was out of the ravine and back onto the higher land; a short ride later and she was back at the location of the earlier fighting, but there was still no sign of the other Brethren. She galloped south for a few moments before she suddenly came upon a group of around forty Lhij. The night was so dark that she didn't see them until she was almost on top of them. Her impulse was to turn and ride swiftly away from them in the opposite direction to which she'd been travelling, but she'd been so sure that she'd find her companions soon that she hesitated as if half expecting them to come riding over the next mound to her rescue. They didn't, and she soon found herself about to be surrounded by angry vicious Lhij. They charged toward her as she backed her horse away. There was only one chance. She summoned a ball of fire high above her head, then turned her horse and galloped as far away to the north as she dared to if she was to still ignite it. The Lhij followed her, seemingly oblivious to the blazing ball hovering twenty or so feet over their head, so that the majority of them were directly under the fire ball as she caused it to explode outward and downward. She held onto her horse as he galloped further north, and collapsed with exhaustion, barely holding onto him as she heard the screams and cries of the Lhij being incinerated behind her.

She returned a few moments later to the site of the fire ball explosion, she was still exhausted but needed to check if there were any signs of her companions nearby. She quickly examined the bodies of the enemy that she'd just killed. Only the remains of about fifteen Lhij lay scorched on the ground. The others had no doubt been injured and had fled, but might return soon. Unless these were survivors of the recent battle, it would seem that there were more parties of the desert dwellers in the vicinity than any of her companions had suspected. She had no way of knowing whether her comrades had survived the initial battle or not. Even if they had, and had managed to reach Kasilkan, there was no guarantee that any of them would still be there. She didn't want to consider the chance that they'd been defeated and all lost, preferring to think they'd either been victorious or had retreated and escaped back to the main force in the east. Either way, there was nothing to be gained in waiting here for whatever Lhij forces remained to attack her. She made up her mind to head northeast herself. She knew that she had to evade any remaining rat people if she was to escape. She couldn't use her talent of illusion to hide from them because she would first need to know where they were, and they were more likely to find her before she found them. She was unable to ride directly north because of the dead river blocking her way. She knew she could cross it further to the west, but that was the opposite direction to where she wanted to be. She decided instead to head eastward: There was likely to be less Lhij in that direction and she hoped she would find another crossing point along the way somewhere.

After riding about three miles, she found a section of the ravine where she could quite easily guide her horse down to the dry river bed. Unfortunately there wasn't a similar area on the northern bank so she carried on riding along the bed of the dead river itself. She rode a few miles further to the east without luck before deciding that she was maybe safer down in the ravine than riding alongside it anyway.

She didn't possess the night vision that the Lhij had, but didn't need it to know when they'd found her. She'd just passed another scalable section of the south bank and had thought to climb it in order to check if she could determine her location, but decided against it when she heard the sound of many naked clawed feet marching to the south. As the sounds of footfall got closer, she could make out the characteristic noise of the rat people chittering in their strange, alien sounding language, and realised that they were much closer to her than she’d first assumed. She rode onward to the east quickly, and heard the cries and snarls of the Lhij as they swarmed down into the ravine far behind her. They had found her and would soon be on her. Alone, she would be lost if they caught her. She didn't have the strength to summon fire again this soon and decided that her only chance was to ride as fast as her horse would carry her.

She would possibly have outrun her pursuers had she not come across what seemed to be an impassable obstacle. Despite her fear, she almost laughed. She knew that the land to the east was much lower than the land to the west. She knew that she was riding along what was once a deep wide river, so she shouldn't have been surprised when she came to what had once been a waterfall. The land suddenly dropped away in front of her. In the dark, she only half noticed it at first; it was almost as if the night had got a little darker here, so that she couldn't even see the ground in front of her, then just as it occurred to her that there was no ground in front of her, her horse stopped and reared up, turning away from the edge of a drop of what must have been over a hundred feet.

She dismounted and looked over the edge. There were trees and heavy bushes flanking both sides of the river bed, so that she hadn't noticed the river banks themselves falling away. She thanked the horse, patting him on his neck. So this was her fate then: To either fall or jump to her death, or to wait to be butchered by ravaging rat men. She feared that the time of her death was near and remembered that there was something she’d always promised herself that she’d do when this moment arrived. Her mount was now frantically galloping between the banks of the ravine, as if in panic. She returned to the horse and faced him, head on. He lowered his head to her as she placed her hand palm down on the front of his head, between his eyes, with her fingers pointing toward his forelock. The horse fell silent as it closed its eyes and she closed her own.

“I know I've led you unwillingly to this point,” she said in her head, knowing that it was the horse she was speaking to, “and this may not appear as much of a gesture since it's likely that we're both going to lose our lives quite soon. But I want to release you from your compulsion.

She didn't know if the horse understood the words she was thinking or merely sensed the meaning of her thoughts, but she knew it appreciated what she was trying to say to it. “Before I do though, I want you to know how sorry I am for treating you like this, for forcing you to do my bidding, and for forcing you to want to do it. Once I release you from your compulsion, you're going to hate me, and I expect that. I beg your forgiveness, though I don't expect you to grant it to me.

She opened her eyes and with a mere thought, the compulsion was lifted. The horse stood for a moment then threw back his head and whinnied. She knew the relief he must have felt, because she too felt it, as though she had been released from the compulsion herself. She stood back with tears in her eyes as she watched the horse frantically walking from one side of the river bed to the other, looking over the edge. She turned as she heard the approaching sound of the Lhij, then turned back to see the horse walking into the heavy bushes against the northern bank, near to the precipice to the east. After a few seconds he hadn't come out and she feared he'd fallen over the edge. She went over to the north bank and found the gap he'd taken, walking into the bushes herself. There was no sign of the horse. But there was a path that sloped steeply downward here. She looked down the path and saw the horse a few yards further on and a few feet below her. It looked as though he'd found a way down.

She followed. If there was even the slightest chance of surviving this, then she was going to attempt it. She would have to be quick as from the sounds she could hear, the Lhij were almost upon her. She stopped and turned and listened. They were close enough now that using her talent of illusion might just work. There was only her, and far too many of the enemy for her to do anything really complex, but she suddenly remembered the scholars teaching her how the Magi had been capable of weaving together the effects of two or more of their talents, and it occurred to her that by coupling her talent of illusion with her talent of compulsion, she might just manage to persuade them to miss the gap in the bushes she'd just passed through. Even with their night vision they wouldn't see it if she wove together the illusion with a compulsion, so that they didn't want to see it. She tried it, and was amazed at how easily it came to her. Despite hearing of the Magi’s ability to weave talents, she hadn't met anyone amongst the Brethren who'd ever successfully done it before.

Suddenly she realised that the Lhij were now standing at the top of the falls, only yards away from her, but that they hadn't found her escape route and that it hadn't even occurred to them to look for one. She turned and began climbing down the path at the edge of the falls to the lower land below. She sensed where the horse had been, but felt her way carefully to avoid losing her footing. It wasn't until she was about twenty feet from the lower ground that she was finally convinced that she was going to make it. She turned and looked back up the steep winding path. There was no sign of the Lhij following. They had probably given up and returned the way they had come by now. She looked downhill again as she tackled the last section of the path. Below her, at ground level, to the east, she saw the horse galloping away and she smiled.

~o~O~o~

As the horse galloped away to the east, another watched him from a nearby hillside. This horse was one of a few that were known and revered by the other free horses. Amongst her own kind she was known purely by her deeds and her history, and had no need for a name, but the human she was bound to had named her Thundermane. It wasn't important to her that the particular human she'd chosen had lived many centuries before, and had been replaced by numerous others since then, no more than it even occurred to her that the free horse he'd been bound to was not her, but one of her own ancestors. Her rider had existed in many bodies since then, both male and female, as had she. But in both their cases, they retained the memories of those that came before them, and where to the humans, each life they lived was distinct from previous ones; to her they were all just separate parts of one continuous existence. To her, whether she'd been mare or stallion, she had always been here, the one her human had named Thundermane, and she'd lived forever since that day, hundreds of years ago.

She could sense where her rider was at all times. She knew when she was needed, was aware when her rider was in trouble. Being bound meant that her human was in her mind always. But for years now, that presence had been absent from her mind. One day over twenty years ago, the woman had dismounted and walked into the mountains and she'd never seen her, heard from her or felt her again.

Not until now at least, because now her senses were reawakened; she was aware of her rider again. She knew that could only mean one thing: She had returned.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The New Boy

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On twitter I occasionally get myself involved in the Friday Night Writers Chat. Last week, a challenge arose out of discussion on there. The brief was as follows:

"Your voluntarily accepted mission is to write a 5k or less short piece with a silent villain - no dialogue, no laughing, NO SOUND. Just to further make your life difficult, no thoughts either, you have to show his/her super scary and intense nature through his/her actions and appearance alone. Now, your non-villain characters can talk all they want; scream, cry, grovel, mock and then get killed, whatever!"

Never one to refuse a challenge, and always ready to try anything that I might enjoy doing, especially if it's likely to be of benefit to me, I made my attempt. So I present to you, 'The New Boy' - an everyday (well not quite!) tale of life in a primary school. (4,998 words, not including the title, so I managed to come in just within the 5,000 word limit. Maybe I should have added 'The End' - at the end, obviously.)
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The New Boy


The school was unusually silent for the time of day. Frank Challis opened the main doors to the playground and was immediately confronted by a tumult of children’s voices. He walked out and looked over a sea of almost identically clothed children and located his colleague Mavis Gates. She weaved her way amongst the children until eventually she reached the clear area of the playground adjacent to the school buildings.

“All clear,” Frank said as she walked within hearing distance; then as she drew nearer to him, he lowered his voice saying: “I’d have bet my life one of the little buggers had set off the alarm, but it looks like it was an electrical fault.”

“Are you certain?” She asked, as they walked back to the area occupied by the children. “We have to be sure it was a false alarm before we let the kids back in.”

“I’ve done a thorough test on all the smoke detectors Mavis, and examined every alarm point,” he said. “None of them has been tampered with. It has to have been a fault with the system.”

“Even though,” Mavis said, “Can we be certain that it isn’t a real fire? Perhaps we should wait for the fire engines to arrive before we decide anything.”

“Mavis, it isn’t an automatic system. There are forty alarm points in the school. If a fire does break out, it relies on someone to either break the glass on one of them, or open one with a screwdriver. None of them has been broken or tampered with, so nobody raised the alarm. If the alarm went off without anyone’s intervention then it must be a fault.”

“I’d rather let George make the decision to go back inside though,” Mavis said. “I wish he were here now.”

“It would look best for us all if we got all this sorted out before he returned,” Frank replied. “Show him we can cope with a crisis like this without needing the headmaster. I’ve called the fire station to explain. They insist on sending someone round, but the kids are going to be disappointed if you’ve promised them a fleet of fire engines. Let’s just get the others to start lining the kids up.”

Frank signalled to the other teachers who were standing amongst the youngsters. It was enough for him to catch their eye, then nod and wave his whistle. They all knew the signal, and one by one, they moved to the edge of the playground to the clear area in front of the school. Frank blew his whistle. One long sharp blow and the children’s chaotic behaviour suddenly changed. There was a frantic rush by most of them to be first in line as they separated into files facing the school entrance, each line facing its own class teacher. One or two of the more boisterous ones continued to play, until a sharp blast on their teacher’s whistle stopped them; then as the teacher called their name, everyone else in line turned, looking at them and shaming them to join the queue. This left only a handful of hard liners, who stood around on the playground not queuing up for entry. Frank would deal with those few as the others filed into the school.

It was safe to say the new boy stood out a little. Where the other children all wore burgundy sweatshirts, he wore a crew necked pullover which was more of a maroon colour: different, but not enough to stand out from the crowd when given only a cursory glance.

While most of the other boys wore long charcoal grey trousers and the remaining, younger ones wore short pants of a similar colour, the new boy wore shorts that by modern convention looked oddly young on a boy his age; they were longer than the younger boys’ shorts and were a lighter shade of grey. His pullover just concealed the grey shirt that he wore beneath it, in contrast to the white polo shirts underneath the sweatshirts of the other children.

Footwear amongst the children appeared to be of two types. Most of the girls wore sensible black pumps though a few wore sports training shoes. The majority of the boys wore trainers, with only a handful wearing smart polished shoes. The new boy’s shoes were of this type, though clumsier in style and design. There were various socks on display, but none quite like the plain grey knitted ones that the new boy wore.

He stood the farthest from the class lines, not playing, just standing, staring with glazed eyes at the school’s entrance, and though he stood out from the others in so many ways, nobody amongst the children or the teachers seemed to notice him. As a new boy, one would have thought the staff would have paid special attention to him, except that none of the teachers had met him yet; indeed, before the fire alarm had sounded, he hadn’t even been inside the school. It was as if he’d simply appeared on the playground as everyone had emerged from school during the evacuation.

Mrs Gates, co-ordinated the return to class, giving a number of sharp whistle blasts signalling each class in turn, from the youngest on the far left, through to the eldest on the right, to march in line behind their teachers through the main doors. Mr Challis wandered around the far reaches of the playground rounding up remaining stragglers. One boy stood well away from the school. At first Challis thought there was something wrong with him because he was standing so still. He didn’t recognize the lad, but then he couldn’t be expected to know all the faces in a school of nearly nine hundred kids. As he approached the boy he noticed the half smile, half sneer on his face. Something made Frank stop before he reached the boy. “Come on sunshine,” he said from a distance, “back to class.” The boy’s gaze momentarily switched to Challis from the school entrance; his smile increased slightly, then he returned to watching the last few classes filing into school. Frank felt uncomfortable for some reason and turned away from the boy to concentrate on the rest of the wayward kids. It was seconds later when he turned back to where the boy had been standing; he wasn’t there anymore, but Challis knew he hadn’t passed him, neither to enter the school, nor to make a dash for the school gates. It was strange, like he’d just disappeared. Frank shrugged and followed the last of the children into the school.

~o~O~o~

Judy Cooper rummaged through the paper on her desk. Her class were taking their seats around the craft tables again; there were about fifteen minutes of the lesson remaining, and little chance for them to finish the task she’d set them, but what really bothered Miss Cooper was that she realised she’d left the ‘big’ scissors on her desk when they’d evacuated. Each of the children had access to plastic paper scissors; health and safety regulations insisted that they had to be supervised even when using these; but for the more intricate cutting tasks that couldn’t be handled by the children, she had a large pair of dressmaking scissors she kept locked away in her desk. She’d taken them out and had been using them when the fire alarm had sounded, and it was only while standing outside she’d realised that, in her hurry to evacuate, she’d left them unattended on her desk. At last she located them underneath a few sheets of multi-coloured paper. She sighed with relief and placed them inside the drawer of her desk and closed it. She’d lock it later when the lesson ended. She looked up to address the now seated class, but still standing, at the back of the room was a small boy that she didn’t recognise. He certainly wasn’t one of her class; he looked lost, standing still with a faint smile on his face as his eyes glanced around the room. Just as she decided to say something, his eyes darted toward her, as if he knew she was about to speak before she did, almost like he was actually commanding her to.

The boy’s eyes regarded her and narrowed slightly. He frowned a little as the smile on his face turned into a sneer. “I’m sorry dear,” she said, “I think you must be in the wrong classroom. You’re not one of mine.”

The boy gazed back at her, without speaking. The other children turned toward him and some giggled. He glanced down momentarily at the boy who laughed the loudest; that boy looked worried and suddenly fell silent. Miss Cooper spoke again: “Which class should you be in, love?” she asked, “Are you year three or year four?” The boy turned his attention to her again, but apart from a narrowing of his eyes, and an upturning of the edges of his mouth as though mocking her with his smile, he showed no signs of answering, or that he even understood what she was asking him.

“He’s really stupid,” mocked a girl sitting at the edge of the craft table, furthest from the front desk. “He can’t talk, or he doesn’t understand. Either way he’s just plain stupid.” The other children all laughed out loud at this, and the boy clearly reacted, glaring at each of them in turn, his mocking smile still somehow there, but now also resembling a snarl. His gaze was suddenly directed at the little girl who’d spoken out, but she was happily enjoying the attention she’d earned from the class and didn’t even see him glaring at her.

“Shellie, that isn’t nice. You mustn’t be unkind to people.” Miss Cooper finished reprimanding the little girl and turned her attention toward the strange boy intending to say something to comfort him. She heard a terrifying scream. Her attention darted back to little Shellie, who had jumped from her seat and was now standing with the ‘big’ scissors sticking out of the back of her hand; she screamed, spinning around so that it was plainly visible that the blades had gone straight through her hand and out through the palm. Judy Cooper couldn’t understand it. She’d put those scissors safely away in her desk, so how the hell could they have got to the opposite end of the classroom.

Some of the other children were beginning to scream in fear and terror now as little Shellie cried more and more, though a couple of them seemed calmer than the others, almost enjoying the excitement. The new boy was acting as though nothing had happened. His mocking smile had returned and he was once again staring at the teacher. “Robert,” she said, “Go next door and ask Mr Culkin to come in and supervise you. I have to get Shellie down to the front office. She needs an ambulance.” Robert ran from the room immediately. Miss Cooper had to think quickly. Not only did she need to deal with this emergency, but she knew that she couldn’t leave this strange little boy with the rest of her class. “Joe, you’re the fastest. Run down the corridor and ask Mr Trent from the special needs unit to meet me at the office; then you go there yourself and ask Mrs Kirk to call an ambulance. Tell her there’s been an accident with some scissors.” Joe ran out of the classroom and went to find the special needs teacher. Trent could take care of the new boy whilst Geoff Culkin looked after her class, leaving her to concentrate on the Shellie crisis. She didn’t know if she should remove the scissors from Shellie’s hand. Alice Kirk, the school secretary and resident first aid expert would know what to do.

She gently manoeuvred Shellie toward the classroom door. As she passed the new boy, she took him by the hand saying “You’d better come with us,” and attempted to lead him outside. His hand was much warmer than she’d expected. It was positively hot. She looked down at him and attempted to walk with him from the room. He resisted at first and suddenly his hand became so hot that she was unable to keep hold of it. She felt an intense burning pain throughout her entire hand. She let go just as Shellie was walking through the door. She had to follow, with or without the new boy. He regarded the look of shock on Judy’s face and his smile became even more mocking. Then as she left the room to escort the sobbing Shellie, he walked out through the door, and followed slowly behind them. Miss Cooper walked briskly along the corridor, knowing the new boy was following, and feeling positively unnerved by that knowledge alone.

~o~O~o~

Moments later, Judy and Shellie were sitting waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Alice had done what she could and Shellie’s crying had reduced to a low sob. The new boy was standing in the centre of the office. Alice Kirk was on the phone, calling Shellie’s parents. Martin Trent searched through the student records to find some indication of who this odd quiet boy might be. He insisted he had no idea of the boy’s identity, though the inability or refusal to speak would certainly have put him within the scope of ‘special needs.’ Martin prided himself on being familiar with each of his students, and aware of every one of their problems. He’d never seen this boy before. He must be new, and if he was, that would be evident from the records.

Alice led Judy and Shellie out to the ambulance when it arrived. The new boy attempted to follow, but Martin dashed after him and stopped him in the corridor. At first, the boy glared at Martin standing in his way, but then as Miss Cooper and the little girl left the building, he stopped trying to follow and stood still in the corridor. “Alice surely there’s some record of a new starter today. He can’t have simply walked in off the street,” He said.

“There’s no record at all Mr Trent. If we had a new boy today, then one of the teachers would know about it. I can’t imagine the headmaster not informing anyone.”

“Where is George?” asked Trent, as Alice joined them in the corridor, “He may have some idea about all this, so when’s he due back?”

“He called about ten minutes ago. It should be within the hour. If he calls again I’ll ask him if he can shed any light on this, but otherwise, all we can do is look after the poor little lad.”

Martin Trent was worried. He opened the door of the nearest classroom. It was a room for the reception year children, and was empty at the moment, save for the rabbit and the guinea pig in their cages in the corner. He urged the new boy into the room. “Just wait in here a bit, mate,” he said, “We have things to sort out.” He closed the door and turned toward Alice Kirk. “What worries me is that if we can’t identify this boy by the end of the school day, what do we do with him then?” The boy attempted to open the door from inside the classroom. Trent called out as he re-closed the door: “Be with you in a moment son. You have a look at the animals while you’re waiting.”

Alice tried to reassure him. “George will sort it out,” she said. “It will all be a simple mix-up. By teatime the poor little mite will be at home with his family.”

The classroom door rattled again, this time a little more violently.

“Anyway, he’s only about seven or eight. I’m sure someone will be here to collect him, come three o’ clock.” It was at that point she noticed the look of surprise on Martin Trent’s face. He was staring over her shoulder, toward the door of the front office. “How the hell did he do that?” he said. She turned and saw the new boy standing just inside the office door. He was staring at both of them. The look of anger on his face was noticeable now. All signs of the smile he’d worn so far had disappeared. Now his face was contorted into a snarl. “He must have got out through the fire exit and climbed in through your office window,” Martin continued. Alice was about to tell him that her office window was locked, but by this time, the boy had turned and walked back into the office, and Trent had gone to pursue him.

Had either of them entered the classroom, they’d have noticed that in the corner of the room, the rabbit and guinea pig cages were still closed, but their occupants weren’t inside them anymore. They were lying on top of the cages, where someone had left them, still and dead, but with no sign of injury, as if all traces of life had just been drawn out of them.

~o~O~o~

George Inkerman was a few hundred yards from the motorway exit when he heard his mobile phone signalling that he’d received another text message. He picked it up from where it was lying on the passenger seat next to him, and glanced at the display. ‘SMS Received from Judy C,’ it read. Why would Judy Cooper be texting him? He certainly didn’t expect that. About an hour earlier he’d received a text message from Mavis Gates: that was one he hadn’t been surprised to receive. Mavis was a worrier: she’d often panic over the smallest problem. If he was out, and something slightly out of the ordinary occurred, it was likely that Mavis would either call him or text him. He’d pulled off the motorway into the first available services to read Mavis’ message, which had read: ‘Alarm! Fire! Evacuated school. Fire not found, all sent back inside.’ Had that been from anyone else, he might have worried, but being from Mavis, he knew it wasn’t worth a panic until he’d verified how serious the problem was. He’d called school and Alice Kirk had assured him that it had been a false alarm, that the correct procedures had been followed, and there was nothing to worry about. He’d told her when he’d be back at school, and had continued his journey.

By now he’d left the motorway and driven a long way down the road he was now on. He finally found a lay-by and pulled into it, to read Judy’s text: ‘Accident in class. Taken injured child to hospital. Thought best to inform you.’ This did worry him. He called Judy’s number; if she was still at the hospital, she’d have turned off and he wouldn’t be able to get through, but he had to try. It rang; good, she must have left the hospital.

Judy answered: “Hello George,” she said. “I thought you’d call. Don’t worry. The little girl’s fine. I’ve left her at the hospital with her mum.”

“What the hell happened, Judy?” he replied. “I want all the details.”

On the other end of the phone, Judy realised that the details, weren’t as clear in her mind as they had been. She knew Shellie had stabbed her hand with the scissors, but couldn’t remember exactly how it had happened. That was strange. How could she have possibly forgotten? She told George what she could remember.

“How the hell did she get hold of the scissors anyway,” he demanded. “You know I’m not happy about you having those things. You’re supposed to keep them under lock and key!”

“There was a fire alarm George. I must have left them on the craft table without thinking, when we evacuated.” But something in her mind told her she hadn’t; she had a vague recollection of putting them away, but of course she couldn’t have done. “There’ll be an inquiry won’t there George? Will I be suspended?”

“Yes Judy, I think there’s a good chance of an inquiry. It depends on the attitude the girl’s parents take. Don’t worry about being suspended. We’ll sort it all out.”

“I know it was negligence really,” she said, “but with the fire alarm and everything, and then the strange little boy...”

“What strange little boy?” George interrupted her. He didn’t know why it seemed so important to; it was as though the words ‘strange little boy’ had triggered something in the back of his mind. Something that he felt he should remember, but that for some reason, he desperately didn’t want to.

Judy explained about the little lost boy in her classroom. She described his physical appearance, but there were details she left out: the sneering look he had, the burning feeling when she took hold of his hand, the uneasiness she felt being near him. She didn’t omit these details by choice: it seemed her mind had begun to shut itself off where this information was concerned and had started to repress the unpleasant parts of her memory.

George felt the same sense of unease Judy had felt earlier. George too had repressed memories; memories of experiences from long ago, that for some reason were now coming back into his mind.

He finished his conversation with Judy and hung up. For a moment he sat quietly in his car as memories of his own past came flooding back to him.

Twelve years ago, he’d been on playground duty and had observed a group of boys teasing a younger child about how old-fashioned his clothes were. He’d gone over to intervene, but as he’d been making his way through the crowds of children, suddenly the group around the boy had been flung outward, as if from an explosion. Each of them had fallen awkwardly on the concrete; there’d been injuries: a head wound, a broken leg and two broken wrists. The little boy who was being bullied hadn’t been seen after that. That had been the same day that his old friend Harry Jefferson, had been found dead in the school. It was odd that he’d seemed to have forgotten any of the events of that day, until now.

Just over seven years ago, he’d been called out of school at ‘going home time’ to deal with a problem. A motorist had missed or maybe even ignored the school crossing patrol at the gates, swerving to avoid hitting a couple of children. When George had arrived at the scene, old Alfie, the crossing warden was arguing furiously with the driver of the car, who’d got out and was threatening all kinds of violence toward Alfie. The attendant parents were also ‘making their opinions known.’ That incident had ended tragically. A little boy, who George assumed was his child, had taken the motorist by the hand to lead him away, and for a moment he fell silent. It looked like the trouble was all done with. Just then the motorist had some kind of seizure and collapsed to the ground, dead. George had tried in vain to find the little boy. It was only now that he realised, that the missing boy was the same little boy who had been bullied five years earlier.

George suddenly felt an urgency to be back at school. He started his car and drove on. Eventually he turned into the school drive and parked his car in the staff car park.

There was an entrance to school adjacent to the car park, so George entered there. As he walked the corridors past each classroom, he noticed the afternoon’s lessons seemed to be going on as usual. He took the long way around the corridors to the office. He wanted to avoid Mavis’ classroom. He was certain she’d come rushing out to him if she saw him, and he had to get to the office without delay.

As he walked into the main office he saw Alice. She was sitting at her desk. She had her hand on the phone as if to lift the handset, but the only movement she was making was a slight swaying, and a quivering of her bottom lip. “Alice,” he said. There was no response. “Alice!” he was louder and more urgent now, “What’s the matter with you? What the hell has happened here?” She still didn’t answer. It was almost as though she was asleep with her eyes open. The look of intense horror on her face implied that she was maybe engrossed in some kind of waking nightmare. George noticed that her eyes were staring, past him, to the seat that had been obscured from his view by the door as he’d opened it to enter. He turned. Sitting there was Martin Trent. He was clearly dead. His eyes were wide open, though only the whites were visible. His jaw hung. His skin seemed to have a slight greyness to it, and looked odd in other ways. It was as if it were stiffer on his face, as though it had somehow shrunk to fit his body more tightly.

George moved Alice’s hand from the phone, and was about to pick it up himself, when he heard a sudden noise from behind the door to his own office. He moved his hand away from the phone and walked slowly toward his office door. It was as if he knew something awaited him there, but still he felt he had to investigate.
He walked into the office to see a small boy sitting at his desk. The half smile, half smirk on the boy’s face took on a more sinister turn as he seemed to recognise George. One side of the boy’s mouth curled up in a kind of sneer as he lifted himself from the chair and walked around the desk toward George.

George recognised the boy immediately as the same one from the bullying incident so long ago, and as the one who’d been holding the angry motorist’s hand just before he’d died. Suddenly other vague memories came flooding back to him: memories of other incidents over his years as a teacher. They were all incidents that ended in death or injury, and the boy had been present in each of them. They were all incidents that somehow had been forgotten by all the people who’d survived them, including George himself, until now.

George’s feeling of unease had given way to one of fear and apprehension as he’d made his way into school. He’d experienced horror when he’d discovered Alice’s catatonic state, and then the body of Martin Trent. Now as the little boy stood before him looking up to him, George was experiencing a feeling of terror. He knew that his fate was to be one similar to that of Alice or worse still, Martin, but there was nothing he could do about it. He wanted to turn and walk away. He wanted to run from the school, never to return; but for some reason he couldn’t. All he could do was look down at the boy as he carefully took George’s hand in his own.

He felt warmth first, only warmth, just the warmth of a child’s hand. The warmth changed, turning to a definite feeling of heat. At first he only felt it on his skin, uncomfortable and then positively painful. But by now he was feeling it within his hand rather than upon it, and he knew there was no point trying to withdraw his hand from the child’s.

The feeling of heat moved inside him, at first up his arm and into his shoulder, then began to spread across and down his entire body. As the pain increased, so did the little boy’s smile. He was looking at George’s hand now, but suddenly he looked up at George and though he made no sound, the appearance on his face made it seem as though he were snarling.

Gradually the little boy’s eyes darkened, so that it was difficult to see where the edge between the white and the iris was. Now the face looking up at George wasn’t one of a little boy: it was more one of a demon, a fiend, a devil. George knew then that this was the end. His entire body from the neck down was burning in intense agony now. He looked upward toward the ceiling as the pain became more and more intense, then he made one last downward glance toward the face of the evil creature that had him. Whatever it was, suddenly stopped smiling. It frowned as if contemplating something. Apart from the darkness of the eyes, it resembled the look George had seen on so many small children’s faces as they struggled with something they needed to learn. Then it stared back into George’s eyes. Its own eyes rapidly changed again, this time leaving them totally black; no iris, no pupil, just two single patches of darkness. George actually seemed to relax at this point, despite the agony he was feeling. He knew that it would soon be over. Suddenly he felt the heat, the burning, and the fire inside him, erupting up through his body and into his brain. And then it was over.

~o~O~o~

The bodies of George Inkerman and Martin Trent were discovered that same day, as was Alice in her stupefied state. Of course, the tragedy made the papers and the police investigated. Alice spent a few days in hospital before she recovered entirely with no memory of the incident. Nobody asked about the new boy, and strangely, nobody even remembered him. After a while the newspapers lost interest. Even the police investigation eventually faded away without any conclusions. At school things returned to normal; but buried deep in the minds of certain members of staff was a memory of a small lost boy; for each of them, that memory would return one day.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

"The Heirs of the Magi" - 1st Chapter, 1st Draft

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I've decided to share the first draft of my first 'complete' chapter on this blog.

It's complete in that it covers as much of the story as I originally intended it to. It may yet expand to include, or at least to mention other aspects that will be introduced in more detail later on.

I'd like comments from anyone who reads it. In fact I'm anxious for them. All comments will be received gratefully and treated seriously. Leave your comment using the place provided at the end of this posting.

It's a little lengthy, but I'd encourage you to stick with it and read it all if you can. Thank you in anticipation for your comments.
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Mas Kellack was old enough to remember better times than this; as one of the elders of the Loniantehl, he was plainly respected by all of the herder people, and was even thought of by most of them as their chieftain in everything but name. But these days, it seemed at times that he took the responsibility for his entire people upon his shoulders. It was as if he and only he still embodied the spirit of his people, as if he alone, amongst all of them still truly appreciated their responsibilities to the herds that they had traditionally followed.

Tonight he stood on the ramparts of the fortress town of Outberg, looking southeast toward the horizon, to the lights flashing and the fires blazing in the late evening sky. It was clear that the battle still raged, but his position here in the citadel was too distant to determine how it progressed. He leaned back a little, directing his attention upward, and cupped his hands around the sides of his face to keep out the noise of the blowing wind as he called to the sentry atop the nearest watchtower.

“Can you see?” he shouted, “How is the battle faring?”

“It's difficult to be certain,” replied the guard, “though I think the fighting is nearer than it was.”

Mas Kellack looked toward the herder who stood beside him. No words were needed; a mere nod of his head and his companion was already climbing the ladder to the look-out post. Once there, he himself studied the horizon and the land between.

“The herds are moving at a pace,” he called down to his companion. “The buffalo all seem to be moving eastward, toward the lower ground away from the fighting.”

“What of the horses?” Mas Kellack called, hopefully. “Are they with them?”

“There are some, directing the buffalo,” he replied, with an obvious tone of concern in his voice, “though not nearly enough. I think most of them are still with the battle.”

Mas Kellack sighed. He knew that the horses were there against their will. They were horses of the free herds; to become involved in the wars of men was not a choice they would make. The free horses didn't serve mankind, save for the few rare cases where one horse bound itself for its lifetime to a particular human. That joining was rarely made and then always by the will of the horse itself; besides, it was an honour only ever offered to a Magus, and the Magi had been gone for years now.

These people who had lately claimed to replace the Magi were responsible for this. It couldn't be denied that they possessed some of the talents of the Magi, but they had none of the responsibility, and none of the respect.

They called themselves the Brethren, and had only come to prominence in the last five years, and though each of them had been born of the various peoples of Yvoronay, the force they had become had appeared as if from nowhere. A few had begun their life amongst the Loniantehl themselves, though most were of the plainsmen Somnehlian, and the mountain people, the Tanfehlian. They offered some kind of strength in the struggle against the Lhij and the other creatures of the southern deserts. They were accepted by the Tanfehlian, who had given them most of their initial support and even the Somnehlian tolerated them. To the herder folk of the Loniantehl, they were looked upon as allies of sorts, but they were known to use their talent of compulsion to force the free horses to serve them, and that was something the herders could never condone, and something that a true Magus would never resort to. Mas Kellack knew this with all certainty, since his own wife was herself one of the Magi.

The herder people lived in harmony with the herds. They lived off the buffalo and with them, killing only when necessary for them to survive. The free horses guided and protected the buffalo, for whatever purpose only they knew. The herders followed the buffalo herds, and the free horses tolerated the herders, so it had become the Loniantehl way of life to also serve the free horses.

Mas Kellack had chosen the free horses even over his own family. He had put his duty to the herds first, when the day had come that his wife had been forced to leave Yvoronay. He had agreed to her request that their only son should accompany her, but had refused to desert the herds himself. Though his wife and son had left him, he understood his wife’s reasons and had appreciated the necessity for them to go. In his own mind, he felt that he had, in fact deserted them for the sake of the herds.

Since then, the world had changed so much. It was a darker and more complex place. The Lhij, the almost human, rodent like inhabitants of the southern desert had always raided north to the southern regions of the plains, sending out small hunting parties to attack the herds, and his people had dealt with them in much the same way as they dealt with the other predatory animals of the plains. Over recent years though, they had started to attack in their hundreds; the increase in their numbers alone had caused them to become a more formidable threat, but they also seemed to be more organised recently: they attacked and fought as an army, with assaults by separate groups being clearly coordinated, as though they had a common purpose. Encampments had been attacked and destroyed frequently, regardless of the defences that were in place. Men, women and even children had been massacred, often without a single survivor. On the rare occasions that a few did escape the attacks, they had told of the Lhij being accompanied by things mentioned before only in legend; creatures spoken of in stories to frighten children: the Darkmen with their venomous grip, and the shape shifting Dhang, able to lurk unseen even in direct sunlight until they chose to be seen and were ready to attack. Some even spoke of other beings: strange reptilian creatures that attacked without hesitation, killed without emotion and slaughtered without thought. And so, here his people were, cowering in this Somnehlian citadel, instead of running with the herd. The elders had voted to take refuge here, at Outberg, and seeing the pathetic, defenceless state that many of his people had been brought to, he hadn't opposed the decision.

Lately though, his people's opinions had changed. During the past months, he'd led many expeditions out onto the plains, in an attempt to keep track of the herd's location; other, younger herdsmen had accompanied him. There had been only a few at first, but recently, since they'd returned carrying the carcasses of free horses killed in battle, the conscience of the people had come to the fore and the number of volunteers for his parties had increased. They were beginning to realise that they could no longer deny the truth: They had deserted the herds. Thousands of years of duty and instinct were finally causing them to feel guilt.

He descended from the ramparts now and walked briskly toward the citadel’s inner walls. His destination was the central keep, where a guard awaited him, ready to escort him to Imrifir, the Somnehlian commander of this stronghold.

~o~O~o~

Imrifir, son of Illipheron, commanded Outberg. This stronghold was one of the southernmost outposts of the plains people, being near to the edge of the uncultivated southern plains, and only two hundred miles or so from the northern boundary of the desert. Most of the occupants here were military personnel and their families, with some associated civilians. There were a few hunters and even fewer farmers, who inhabited the area in the vicinity of the citadel. Until the herder folk had arrived, every person under his administration was of the plains people, though he hardly recognised some of these people as Somnehlian.

Imrifir had distinctive Somnehlian features: The stocky build, the pronounced forehead and broad face, the straight black hair always cropped short on men, unless shaven off entirely as was the custom amongst warriors. These were the features that he'd thought all Somnehlains possessed until he'd been given command of this southern outpost. Here the look of his own people surprised him. Some were taller and thinner, some with high sloping foreheads. Others had brown hair in various shades, often worn long and tied back, even amongst the men.

This far south on the plains, miles away from the valleys he'd been raised in, his people behaved differently. The way of life for most of those not associated with the military was one of hunting; there was a little farming, but not as much as on the plains farther north, and nothing like in the northern valleys where the land was more fertile. They lived in close proximity to the Loniantehl and it would appear that a lot of interbreeding had taken place over the years.

His servants carried in jugs, filled with ale that had been brought here from his home valley, and bread made from the wheat grown on the edges of the northern plains not far from where he had been born. He'd thought of offering meat as well, but these herder folk were very sensitive about eating flesh in general and buffalo meat in particular. He'd discovered that a few of them even followed a totally vegetarian diet. He didn't know if the elder he waited for now was one of these few, but he didn't want to risk insulting or offending him.

A servant placed a large platter of new baked bread upon the table, as another served a smaller plate of strong flavoured buffalo cheese. He should be safe with the cheese: Even if this Mas Kellack followed these strange dietary customs, he could hardly object to being served with the cheese that his own people made from the milk of the very buffalo they followed.

He looked at the two women attending him. One was a classic example of the proud looking Somnehlian women that he knew; she had the features he was used to, though her hair was a dark shade of brown, not black. She reminded him of his own mother, with her strong, stern looks. He laughed to himself a little: his mother had been strong and stern, but had always had a softer side, that nobody outside his family ever saw. That was the way with Somnehlian women, with the type of Somnehlian women he was familiar with anyway.

The other servant was of a different type altogether: She was taller than any Somnehlian woman he'd seen further north, as were many in this area. A few were even taller than him, but so were many of the men. Her hair was long, though worn tied back in the traditional plains way. But it was of a totally alien looking colour, being lighter than any plains woman should expect her hair to be: almost yellow, but with a suggestion of reddish brown. He'd only seen that colour hair on the Loniantehl, and surmised that her ancestry wasn't of purest plains people stock.

As she arranged the plates, jugs and goblets on the table, he spoke to her: “Do you have herder blood among your ancestors girl?” He hoped he wasn't sounding too stern. “You seem to resemble those people a little.”

“My mother was of the Loniantehl sir,” she replied. “My father took her as his wife after her people sought refuge here years ago during a particularly harsh winter.”

“Was it usual then for them to turn to us more readily than they do now?” he asked. “I was under the impression that they only ever looked for our aid as a last resort.”

“This was a last resort sir. The winter was killing their people. Many of them lost their entire families and a few made up their minds then, to never return to their nomadic way of life, choosing instead to live amongst us permanently. There hasn't been a winter like that since then though, and it has taken war to persuade them to seek us out again.”

He nodded. He'd heard of that winter. He even remembered it, though it hadn't been quite so harsh nearer to the mountains and he didn't know at the time that anyone anywhere had suffered from it that badly. Even under circumstances like that, he felt confident that absolutely nothing would have persuaded him to forsake his own people, and take up a new life with another race. He grimaced a little as a thought occurred to him. Things certainly were changing. His son, Illipheron, named for his own father, even now was fighting alongside soldiers of the Tanfehlian, in an effort to hold back the advancing hordes of desert dwellers. How long until fighting alongside them grew into living with them? He didn't want to think about it. He was proud of his race, and though he had what he saw as an adequate respect for both the mountain people and the herder folk, he certainly didn't want to be that close to them. He'd heard talk that some scholars in the Tanfehlian cities had theorised that the three peoples had once been a single race and that someday, they might all live as one people again. He didn’t deny the possibility that something like that might happen sometime in the future, but he was sure that it wouldn’t come about in his lifetime, which he was thankful for, because he certainly didn't want to be party to it.

“Will you stay to serve us?” he requested of the blonde girl. “My guest may feel more at ease with one of his own people nearby.”

She stopped suddenly and glared angrily, at him: “Sir. I will stay to serve you as is my duty, and you're probably correct, my appearance may comfort your guest, but please take note that I am not one of his people. I am Somnehlian as are you and as is my father before me. My mother was the one who chose to become one of us by marrying my father; she chose our way of life over her own. She was free to abandon her life as a herder; please don't assume that you have the authority to make me become Loniantehl again.”

She backed away a little as she realised that she'd raised her voice to her master. She clasped her hands in front of her, but not once did she lower her gaze from where it had been: staring him defiantly in the eye.

He apologised to her, but as he did he smiled inwardly. This girl was definitely Somnehlian, proud and haughty, just like his own mother. It seemed that it took more than a little foreign blood to dilute the spirit of his race.

~o~O~o~

The guard who escorted Mas Kellack through the keep strode onward in silence, his stern gaze looking forward for the entire duration of the short journey to the hall at the keep's centre. He was a little shorter than Mas Kellack, and a lot younger. He walked at a pace a little slower than the herder was used to, probably assuming that it was necessary due to the older man's advancing years. Mas Kellack contented himself with the certain knowledge that even at his age he could probably outpace this soldier and most of his colleagues over long distances.

For almost sixty years now, ever since his youth, he had run with the herds throughout the southern plains, carrying his tent on his back, his daggers in his belt, his quiver slung across his shoulder, and his bow in his hand. He had protected the herds from the wild animals that had attempted to prey on them. He had fought alongside the free horses when wolves or wild cats attacked. He had killed the Lhij without hesitation when they chose to assail them, but he had also killed the buffalo when his people were in need of food, and even at times when they had need of meat and skins for trade. He respected the buffalo for the sacrifices they made for his people. He saw the free horses fighting the Lhij to protect the herds, but also standing by without aggression as he and his people themselves slew the buffalo that they protected. He and many of his contemporaries had sworn an oath to the free horses that though they killed for meat for their families, they would never themselves eat the buffalo's flesh, that instead they would survive without meat, save for the game they hunted, and would feed themselves on the roots and grasses foraged from the plains. He was sure that the free horses, and maybe even the buffalo themselves, respected them for that.

The doors to the central hall were ahead. Two more guards stood before them flanking them, one to each side. As Mas Kellack and his escort approached, they reached across and pulled open the double doors to the hall and then stood aside. Mas Kellack continued onward and through the doors. His escort stopped, turned, and marched away. Neither of the door sentries followed the old man into the hall, merely closing the doors behind him. Mas Kellack knew enough about Somnehlian customs to recognise this as a mark of respect, shown only to trusted and respected visitors of high standing.

Inside the hall, Commander Imrifir sat in a large chair beside a round dark wooden table. He arose as Mas Kellack approached him. He was heavily built and of medium height, taller than many plainsmen, though short by Loniantehl standards. He wore heavy leather armour similar to that worn by the guards, which surprised Mas Kellack as he’d rarely seen the commander wearing battle dress whilst inside the citadel walls, and in the circumstances, he assumed it was for the purpose of making an impression. The armour was made of buffalo leather, and the workmanship was impressive. The Somnehlian armourers had done justice to the heavy buffalo hides, and Mas Kellack felt strangely comforted to see the commander’s fine armour. Imrifir wore nothing on his bald head, and the dark shadows around his lower face gave the impression that he hadn't shaved today, though these people often had dark hair, and the hour was late, so the shadow could have been just the result of this day's growth.

“Elder, welcome. Come sit with me,” He beckoned with his hand as he greeted Mas Kellack. “May I offer you bread and ale from my land, and cheese made from the local buffalo milk?”

Mas Kellack took a seat in a chair which was noticeably smaller and lower than the one that the commander now returned to. That was to be expected, as this was the place where Imrifir handed out orders to his sub-commanders, and proclaimed his judgements in the day-to-day running of the stronghold. A girl approached as they sat, and offered bread and cheese to them, first to Mas Kellack, and then to Imrifir. Mas Kellack took some bread and a little cheese.

“First Commander, I want to offer you my people's gratitude for this shelter and protection you have provided us. Times are hard for us, to say the least, and we appreciate you giving us this place of security,” the old man began. This commander had shown him courtesy; there was no reason that he shouldn't return as much. “I appreciate that your people, and you in particular are providing us with much more than we should be entitled to expect from you, but I assure you that when current events become less volatile, we will reimburse you by way of trade, as has always been the tradition in the past.”

Imrifir smiled broadly: “Elder, that goes without saying,” He said. “Our peoples have always been friends, relying on one another for trade. It is a thing hardly worth mention that you should now rely on us for shelter. While here in Outberg, your people have contributed to our society by their efforts and their labours. We realise that this is a temporary situation, but you have my own personal assurance that the goodwill provided to you now, will not be withdrawn, however long this situation endures.”

The girl returned and began to fill the goblets on the table before them with ale poured from a pitcher. Again, out of respect she served Mas Kellack first. He was tempted to hold his hand over the top of his goblet to prevent her from pouring; he had little taste for the plainsmen's ale, and certainly no need for it at the moment; he needed to keep a clear head. Out of courtesy, he accepted the beverage. He waited until Imrifir had been served, then lifted his goblet and took a sip at first, then thought better of it and took a decent mouthful to be polite before replacing it on the table. The girl attempted to replenish it, but this time he quietly refused. He looked at the girl. She was clearly Somnehlian, but had the golden hair of his own people and reminded him a little of Ess Teyarl, his son's wife.

Imrifir interrupted his thoughts: “I have it in my mind that you requested this meeting with some specific purpose in mind, not merely to express your gratitude, which I assure you is unnecessary. Perhaps you want me to provide you with an update as to how the war effort in the south is proceeding.”

Mas Kellack was a little disturbed by the commander's tone, and by his insinuation, whether it was deliberate or unplanned.

“Commander, my people are fully informed as to the state of the war with the desert invaders. We may have need to take advantage of your fortifications, but we have not deserted the herds entirely; we send out parties regularly to assess the danger. I personally have probably spent these recent weeks nearer to the battle than you have yourself.”

Imrifir put out both hands in front of him in a gesture of appeasement, “Elder, my apologies. I meant no offence. I appreciate that your people's concern over the hostilities is no less than ours, but we receive despatches from our forces at other frontiers across the plains, and I assumed that you may have been curious as to how things fared elsewhere.”

Mas Kellack nodded. He thought about the area the herds now seemed destined for: “How are things to the southeast?” he asked. “Are the attacks there as intense as here?”

“It would seem that the Lhij are attacking in force everywhere across our southern frontier, though their efforts to the southwest seem to be particularly aggressive; it's almost as if they're being driven onward, as if something or someone has given them purpose. They are more organized than they've ever been.”

Imrifir didn't need to explain what or who he was referring to as 'something or someone.' Mas Kellack knew as well as all the leaders of the three races, and as well as anyone who'd ever had dealings with the Magi, that the 'someone' Imrifir spoke of was Vynchek, the one Magus who’d remained in Yvoronay. The old madman who's fear of losing his talents was so intense, that as rumour had it, he’d even tried to sacrifice the lives of his fellow Magi to retain and increase his own power. Mas Kellack himself knew these were more than rumours. The other Magi, including his own wife, had fled Yvoronay for that very reason. For years since then, Vynchek had kept his motives from the people, but then the Tanfehlian had discovered the atrocities he’d later committed in his attempts to increase his powers. He had been cast out and intelligence reported that he’d fled toward the southern desert.

“There was a lull in the fighting a few days ago and the Tanfehlian armies were able to regroup.” Imrifir continued: “They have a much stronger alliance with the Brethren than we do here. Currently, whilst the Brethren fight due south of us and to the southwest, the Tanfehlian legions are occupied in greater numbers to the southeast.”

Mas Kellack knew a little of the strength and of the numbers of the Tanfehlian army, and also of their eagerness to support the Brethren. “So how are the Tanfehlian forces faring then?” he asked, “Our intelligence reports that the Brethren are struggling to hold their ground and to avoid being pressed back.”

“That has been noted by our forces too,” he replied, “and surely by theTanfehlian and by the Brethren themselves. It would appear that the Brethren are meeting with more opposition than the armies at the eastern end of the frontier are. The desert dweller armies facing them are much larger. It may be a question of terrain; maybe the eastern ground isn't of importance to the Lhij. Or maybe it is the Brethren themselves who are the object of the Lhij attacks. The Tanfehlian armies appear to be prevailing against their foes. Those particular Lhij forces appear to be content to merely hold the ground they already control. That would be good news to you I hope, as I heard news that your herds are migrating eastward, and that would seem to be a much safer location for them.”

“Commander, they are not our herds, though I accept that we are their people. But yes, I admit I am gladdened by the news that they may soon reach safer ground.” Mas Kellack paused a little before continuing. “But it is the free horses that remain with the Brethren that concern me more. They are anything but 'free' in those circumstances, and there are far too many of them still there, each forced into battle against their will. My people should be there to protect them and to try to free them from the Brethren’s control.”

“Politically, that would probably not be very wise Elder,” Imrifir advised. “I have no love for these Brethren either, but they do fight on our side, and stealing away their mounts is hardly supportive of the war effort.”

“My people's duty is to the herds. We serve the free horses, and these Brethren are as much a danger to the horses as the Lhij are, and in many ways, as much of an enemy to them and therefore to us.”

There was a pause. Imrifir could sense that the old man was angry. After a while he took a slow drink from his goblet of ale, expecting Mas Kellack to do likewise, but the elder just sat slumped in his chair, with his head hanging down.

“What of your people among the Brethren then?” he ventured. Mas Kellack looked up suddenly as he continued: “I know personally of three of the Loniantehl amongst them. I have spoken with them in this very hall, on two separate occasions.”

“Yes,” said the old man, “There are three, but only three, though my people have not seen them, nor had news of them since they left our encampments some years ago. What can you tell me of them?”

“Only that they requested an audience, a little over a year ago. They asked me if I could supply them with mounts from my own stock of horses. They said that their beliefs prevented them from riding the free horses, but that they were still badly in need of mounts to ride into battle.”

Mas Kellack knew of the military horses that the Somnehlian rode. They were nothing like the free horses. They had similar strength and speed, but none of the nobility and no sign of the intelligence. Mas Kellack had been sickened to look upon them; they were no more than animals. Nobody in Yvoronay could ever describe the free horses as just animals.

“I supplied them with a brace of mounts each, and they left contented.” he continued, “But then around seven months ago, two of them returned, requesting more mounts.”

“Two of them? What of the third? Who was it that didn't return?” Mas Kellack appeared desperate for information, as he was, since one of those three was Dern Anchar, the granddaughter of his own deceased brother.

“I never learned their names Elder,” the commander replied, “There were three of them the first time, two male youths and a young girl. It was one of the youths who didn't return. I don't know if he'd been lost in battle, or had decided to take a new mount from amongst the free horses.”

Mas Kellack shuddered. He feared that he must have been killed; that was far more likely than him ever riding a free horse. “What of the girl. How was she?” he asked. “She is kin to me,” he added by way of explanation.

“She was troubled, Elder,” he said, “as was the boy with her. They had clearly seen harsh battle for they wore the look of hardened warriors. I have seen that look so many times among my own young recruits, and it saddens me that our way of life should affect them so badly, so quickly.”

Mas Kellack looked troubled but somewhat relieved. After a pause, he took a long drink from his goblet and spoke again: “The reason I am here with you today Commander, is to tell you of a proposed change of strategy on my people's part, and to beg one more favour of you.”

Imrifir sat back in his chair clutching his goblet. He spoke just one word: “Continue.”

Mas Kellack went on: “My people's opinion has changed. All but a few of us now realise that hiding here inside your walls is not the most honourable action to take, but we dare not return entirely to life as it was. Too many dangers still exist on the open plains to the south for us to risk our people by trying to re-establish our encampments there just yet.

“The news that the herds are moving to more secure grounds will probably persuade more of my people that my plans make sense. We mean to take up our tents and follow the herd, but we need somewhere that our children and our elderly can be safe for the time being.” He paused a little, before continuing: “If you could supply assurances that their welfare and their security here would be maintained, then I'm sure that I could gain the full support of all of my people.”

Imrifir doubted that Mas Kellack would ever gain the support of all of his people. Before this sanctuary had begun, the commander had only encountered the Loniantehl in the business of trade, and had only been personally associated with two of the other elders: Ves Eston and Shen Riffeen, and it had seemed to him that they had spent almost as much time as his guests as they had with their own people. These two he had learned, had been the architects of the plan to retreat into Outberg. He disliked them. They both seemed to have their own welfare at heart. This elder was different. He was honourable. His people and his herds were clearly his only concerns.

Mas Kellack and Imrifir then spoke at length about the current situation and the circumstances that had led to the herder people's exile here.

Imrifir heard firsthand about how Mas Kellack was against the plan, and initially resistant to it, as were a number of his people, and a few others amongst the elders themselves. But he told of how eventually he realised that the safety of the people was as important as the welfare of the herds, and of his decision to cease his opposition to seeking shelter here.

“Of course Commander, I wanted to do whatever could be done to protect the people but I couldn't in all conscience support the idea of deserting the herds,” he explained. “Though I realised that eventually the other elders would still reach the same decision, whether or not I opposed them. I had much support amongst the herdsmen, but little amongst the elders. I chose not to antagonise the other elders by opposing the view of the council. So I withdrew my objections: I thought that was the best course of action, since I could not risk them opposing my own plans, or take the chance that they might attempt to prevent me giving what support I could to the herds when the time came.”

Imrifir knew of the expeditions that Mas Kellack had led. Indeed when the herder folk had initially arrived at Outberg, and for the first few days, Mas Kellack was not even present. Hundreds of his people had flocked into the stronghold and Imrifir had been saddened by how many of them had looked weak and pathetic, with no signs of the pride and nobility he'd been led to expect from the tales he'd heard about the Loniantehl.

But then on the fourth day, Mas Kellack appeared out on the plains with another thirty or so herdsman. These men strode proudly, running toward the stronghold, then marching with their heads held high when they eventually entered the fortifications.

They had left again only days later, and had made many such expeditions since then. They did not have the blessing of the elders' council, so before each departure Mas Kellack had called for volunteers, and each time, more herdsmen had come forward than the previous time. Those that Imrifir had thought too young, too old or too weak when he'd first encountered them somehow seemed now to be endowed with a new strength, a new pride and a new nobility.

Imrifir had made it his business to watch this Mas Kellack since then. He admired the old man, and had grown to like him. Compared to the other elders he'd met, he recognised this man's strength and honesty. It was an injustice both to him and to his people that he wasn't their sole chieftain.

The commander made his opinion known: “What if the council had objected to you? Would you have defied them? Would the other herdsmen have supported you?”

“Nothing could ever compel me to back down from my duty to the herds Commander. I'm certain that many of the other herdsmen feel the same, so I have no doubt that I would have had much support whatever the council’s standpoint,” he said, “but thankfully they didn't take that attitude, for it would surely have caused a rift among my people.”

“It’s more likely that the council chose not to object for that very reason. Because they knew it would cause a rift. They probably knew that your will would prevail, and didn't like the idea of having to surrender their power to you.” Imrifir leaned toward the table and helped himself to another piece of bread.

Mas Kellack shook his head slowly: “That is not our way Commander. I would not seek to oppose the view of the council; none of my people ever would. Our traditional ways have provided us with centuries of peaceful rule.”

Mas Kellack was surprised how little the commander knew of the Loniantehl system of government. He understood how each tribe was commanded by a group of elders, but he couldn't grasp how the leadership could be shared equally without one individual as an outright chieftain, or at least as a figurehead.

Mas Kellack assured him that the system worked well, especially when separate tribes came together, which happened regularly due to their nomadic lifestyle. Then there was no struggle for power between separate leaders, just a larger council of elders making decisions for an increased population, and in doing so, sharing power without conflict.

“I have no doubt that in times of peace your system is efficient,” Imrifir said, “but in times of struggle like those we find ourselves in now, your people are in need of a strong leader: a man who can make decisions without fear of veto by those less committed than he is.”

“Maybe you are right Commander,” Mas Kellack replied, “for you know much more of war and military matters than I do, but the need for an absolute ruler is not necessary amongst my people yet. When it is, I am sure there will be many amongst our men and women who will be worthy of that duty, and who will serve the people admirably. For now, I have my own task, to lead my herdsmen out to once again serve the herds, and that I fully intend to do. It would put my mind at rest if I had your support.”

“What of the other elders? Are you sure that you have their support?” the commander asked.

“I am confident of support from all but a few of them,” the old man replied. “And some of those that remain may be persuaded yet.”

“There is a pair that I know that won't be easily swayed,” the commander half chuckled under his breath. “Mas Kellack, you are clearly meant to be your people's chieftain. Do not take the chance of these old fools ruining your plan. Impose your will upon them. Take command. Grab the power that you've earned the right to. Become the leader that you deserve to be.”

It was the first time in the entire meeting that the commander had used the old man's name. He was taken aback a little. Imrifir had been gracious toward him; he had shown support, even comradeship, but the way that he was now encouraging him and attempting to persuade him felt less than comfortable.

“Leadership is not about power Commander,” he replied, “A leader must serve those that follow him as much as they serve him. If one day, it is my people's will that I lead them, then I'll accept their trust in me graciously. If not, then I will bow to their judgement. But for the time being, from a personal standing, I plan to journey out and return to the herds, where I should be, and enough of my people are willing to follow me. Will you still give shelter to those that must remain behind, and those that choose to?”

Imrifir reached across the table and grasped the hand of Mas Kellack: “Your elderly and your children will be safe at Outberg for as long as they need to be, my friend,” he said, “As will those of your people who choose to remain here. They will be treated just as well as those who remain through necessity. I will allow no prejudice to be shown by my people either way.” He paused for a moment before continuing: “You know that I will always see you as the chieftain of the herder folk, but it would be prudent for you to appoint someone as spokesman in your absence. I know of a pair of elders who will be keen to assume that position themselves, though I would never be sure if they were really speaking on behalf of you and your people, or merely speaking for themselves.”

Mas Kellack smiled. “By all means let them appear as representative leaders Commander, for I know that you will not allow their decisions to jeopardise the safety of those of the Loniantehl who remain under your protection, and no proclamations they make here will affect the actions of we that have departed, but I appreciate and respect your desire to deal with me directly. It would be prudent for us to make arrangements for me to communicate with you via your own army's intelligence lines. I assure you that my wishes will be known to you at all times. Anything you need to report to me may be communicated in a like fashion.”

Mas Kellack had grown to like and respect the commander, and now believed that he could trust him. “I will tell you further of my plans Imrifir,” he continued. “The main aim is to travel southward and eastward to locate the herds, and to fulfil our duties in serving them. However, there are many of us who see our destiny elsewhere. I will personally lead a force southwards toward the battle. There we can attempt to liberate the free horses, either by negotiation or by force. If that isn't possible then we intend to fight alongside them and if necessary, die alongside them.”

He stood up and stepped away from his chair. Imrifir walked around the table toward him and grasped him in his arms. “You are an honourable man Mas Kellack. I am proud to call you a comrade and would be pleased to call you friend. Do what you know must be done, and whenever the need arises, you can be certain that I will give whatever aid you require.”

Mas Kellack grasped the shorter man in a strong embrace then he stood back and smiled and then turning, he marched briskly from the great hall.

~o~O~o~

When Mas Kellack emerged from the keep, into the open courtyard between there and the inner fortifications, he was at first surprised to see the number of hand torches lighting up the night. It looked as though, despite the hour, almost every one of the Loniantehl inside the citadel had gathered there and were standing waiting for him. A hush settled on them as he stopped and faced them.

He looked out over the sea of expectant faces and spoke: “I have the plainsmen's promise that both our infirm and our infants will be safe within these defences. With these arrangements in place, there is no conflict with the ruling of the council that we use Outberg as sanctuary. As for the rest of you, your lives are subject to your own decisions. Your fate and your future are in your own hands. Any of you who wish to stay may do so, if your fear of death overcomes your sense of duty. To any that will follow me I say to you that now is the time to strap on your tents and unsheathe your daggers. I urge you to pick up your bows and fill your quivers, for in the morning we leave this place, and in a matter of days we will again run with the herds. Tomorrow is the day that we stop hiding and join the war.”