As he despatched the first antagonist, he already knew what the others would attempt. Kalmar saw the glave coming for his head long before it became a threat. In principle, there was nothing wrong with the swing; it was well executed and the warrior was both committed and determined. But Kalmar knew, even in the tenth of a heartbeat that it took him to register the incoming blow that it was futile. He swayed back with long ease, his body twisting so that his opponent overextended, and as the younger fighter tumbled, Kalmar’s fist hammered into his face. The youth tumbled over spluttering even as Kalmar straightened his arm and brought it about in a vicious backhand crack. He felt the jarring impact as the back of his hand connected with flesh, and the gasp as the second warrior rushing up behind him folded over.
Kalmar sighed. Their plan had been too obvious: the first had engaged him head-on whilst the second swung for him from the right and the third approached from behind. It relied on the brutal strength of numbers, and that was not the Eloytian way.
It wasn’t what he was attempting to teach them.
Mondar, the student with the glave, pulled himself to his feet slowly, rubbing his face. He leaned on his blunted training-glave as he massaged his tarkla. Kalmar regarded him with a long-felt mixture of hope and annoyance. The boy was more than capable, and he was the picture of health for a young Eloytian. Near seven feet in height, with healthy pale-blue skin, the crystalline scales of his flesh glowing lustily with the energetic fires of young. His face was long and jutting, perfectly formed, and the tarkla – the raised ridge of bone which ran from the crest of the head to the end of the nose – was pronounced and unbroken. His six-fingered hands were dextrous, and his four green eyes took in everything with keen observation. Yes, he was physically excellent. And mentally entirely capable. He exceeded other students in written examinations in history, philosophy and physic.
If only he wasn’t so abominably lazy.
“What on the solar sea could you have been thinking?” he asked, attempting to restrain the anger from his voice, “I asked you to lead your Moromar and Jenkar in an attack bout against me. I expected you to attack me using all the techniques and methodologies I have spent these three years teaching you, in order to overcome my superior experience. Yet you set upon me like a trio of drunken Arakul, clearly disregarding all of my lessons. I require an explanation.”
Mondar’s eyes flashed with the familiar resentment and then softened into a sullen expression.
“The Eloytian way teaches us that each warrior must be his own shield and weapon, Brother Kalmar,” he grumbled, “when you asked the three of us to attack you, I assumed that it meant we were to disregard the way and get the job done in any way that we could.”
Kalmar sighed.
“Well, you were sorely mistaken. You would quote the way to me? Perhaps you have not remembered the lessons that teach us that each warrior must learn to work with his fellows to ensure victory. The warrior way encompasses both self-sufficiency and co-operation. I fact which I hope you will acquaint yourselves with this evening before meditation. That applies to you two as well, Moromar, Jenkar. You should have protested to Mondar when he suggested departing from the way. I shall expect all of you to show extra effort in tomorrow’s session. In the meantime, think on what I have said and re-acquaint yourselves with the texts of the way.”
The three students nodded, looking suitably chastised, though Mondar still wore a sour look. They bowed formally and began to retreat. Kalmar sighed.
“Never has it been said that learning the way is easy,” he said, “and you have all proved yourselves capable in coming as far as you have. But Eloythia has stood as one of the greatest Realms since time immemorial precisely because our warriors are trained to a degree that others would deem unnecessary. We our proud protectors of ourselves and of the weaker Realms. We have never had to beg the Draconis to free us from a tyrannical fellow realm nor save us from a pack of flea-bitten Arakul ravening out of the wildlands. If you wish to be part of that great legacy, you must accept that these early years will be difficult. Do not let yourselves be dismayed. That is all.”
Kalmar meditated for several minutes after the students left, placing himself in a place of harmony and quiet. Having soothed away the emotional rush of the fight and the annoyance at his students’ poor performance, Kalmar stood and took a little food from the small preparation table in the corner. The fare was adequate, a wholesome stew of vegetables. Nothing exciting, but Kalmar found that in the main avoiding extravagant dishes helped him to concentrate on his duties and researches.
Eald Halomar had asked to speak to him after his morning lessons, and Kalmar was careful to eat and refresh himself before any such meeting. In part this was out of respect for the Eald and a desire to pay full attention to whatever was required of him, but it was also due to a genuine affection for the old man. Halomar had been the one, forty years before, who had vouched for Kalmar and allowed him to join the monastery as a novice, against the arguments of the other senior brothers and Kalmar’s manifest problems. Halomar would always insist that it was Kalmar’s own merit which had seen him admitted, but Kalmar had always remembered the selfless act of kindness.
After he had eaten, Kalmar gathered his glave and strolled from the training hall. The midday sun was pleasantly warm, casting its faintly green rays down on the rolling pastoral countryside of Eloytia. Kalmar passed through the monastery’s great orchard, where Eloytians from the nearby town of Carndea were gathering fruit for the coming winter. The brothers and sisters maintained the orchard for the people, as one of their acts of charity. It helped the younger initiates and novices remember that the Eloytian way was as much about compassion as martial skill.
Kalmar was greeted warmly by several foragers on his way past, and he responded to each greeting with a smile and kind word. Such words cost him so little, but he knew that some of those he spared a nod and word for would be cheered by it all day. The practitioners of the way were sometimes almost feared, but to be acknowledged by such a one was considered great luck. Which always struck Kalmar as odd, given that all followers of the way were obliged to show courtesy at the very least.
He climbed the gentle slope at the far end of the orchard, reached the small, simple wooden house where the Eald kept his lodgings. It was a curiously unassuming place, the smallest and most set-aside building of the monastery. There were a few endearing trappings specific to Halomar himself: a bench set outside with two chairs on either side, upon which sat a tray of sweet cakes cooked by he Eald’s own hand and a harnreth board set up for a game. The food was for any visitor who was kept waiting, the board for any man who cared to speak to the leader of the monastery over a game. Many times Kalmar had come to see Halomar and found him in mid-game, discussing tilling with ageing farmers. However, Halomar was not there on this occasion, and Kalmar was surprised to see that the door of the house was close. He could scarcely remember a time when that door had been closed since Halomar had ascended to the rank of Eald. Feeling a twitch of concern, Kalmar hurried up to the door and knocked twice with the pommel of his glave. There was a sound of movement within, and then the door was quickly wrenched open, as though the opener feared an ambush.
Eald Halomar was not looking well. It was true that the Eald was past a hundred years old, and the crystals of his skin had long since begun to lose the glow of inner energy, leaving them a flat greyish blue, but that was what one expected of an old man. The look of exhaustion in Halomar’s eyes, however, was quite the reverse of his usual sparkling expression of indulgence. His body was tense, as though expecting violence, and for the first time in many years, Kalmar saw the old abbot’s glave in his hands.
“Great gods of Element!” he exclaimed in shock, “what ails you, Eald?”
Having ascertained the identity of his visitor, Halomar relaxed visibly, though his eyes still bore the mark of the terribly weary. He glanced past Kalmar, as though checking to see if he had been followed, and then beckoned.
“Come in, dear boy,” he said in the familiar croaking, stony voice, “don’t stand about on the doorstep all day!”
Kalmar blinked his forward set of eyes briefly, to better focus his rear set and improve his peripheral vision. He sensed nothing to either side of them or behind that might have caused Halomar’s obvious anxiety, so he stepped into the house as bidden. Halomar closed the door with almost indecent haste behind him, and crossed the room to sit in the large, tattered reading chair that he could usually be found in if not outside. Kalmar looked around. As ever, Halomar’s house was clean and tidy, well maintained in spite of the many mementoes that the old man kept. The one exception was the low study table off to one side, which was littered with papers. At a glance, Kalmar picked out a chart of the Solar Sea as well as what looked to be letters written in a hasty hand, and two texts of the basic principles of the Eloytian way. He frowned. Halomar knew every text and commentary of the way by heart. He only reason he could have them open was for the sense of comfort they brought, which did not reassure Kalmar.
“What troubles you, Halomar?” he asked directly, “you look terrible. And I do not like what your manner may portent.”
Halomar chuckled a genuine if exhausted laugh.
“You have never had time to for politics nor subtle questions, Kalmar,” he said, “which I like. But please indulge an old man. I have reason enough to be troubled, and you shall know all I know, or what I think I know, before you leave. But for a few moments let us pretend that this is a normal visit, and that we may talk as we did of old. How are your students?”
Kalmar attempted to push down his concerns, and concentrated on the mundane duties of the instructor.
“All three show promise. Academically and physically, they are more than able. Mondar especially could be one of the greatest. But their performance was disappointing this morning. When instructed to attack me as a group they reverted to their most base pack instincts. They failed to use their training or to effectively work as a team. It was disheartening. I have admonished them.”
Halomar smiled, and looked very much like a simple grandfather.
“Learning to attack as a group is one of the hardest tests of the Eloytian warrior-monk. As I recall, your group was the only one of your generation who managed to overcome the mob mentality on the first occasion. Give them time, Kalmar. Assuming that any of us survive the coming winter they will turn out well. Not all are as gifted as you, Kalmar.”
Kalmar barely heard the last sentence. His heart had turned to ice at the almost throwaway comment about surviving the winter.
“Eald…” he began, but Halomar raised a hand.
“What I am to tell you today is monolithic, Kalmar, and you must allow me the time to speak in full. After today, none of us will be the same. What I have glimpsed will change everything. Eloytia will be different, if it survives at all. What I have been given the smallest hint at will shake the Solar Sea and every Realm on it.”
Kalmar blinked, unable to believe what he was hearing. Either Halomar had lost his mind, or this was a ridiculously uncharacteristic jibe, or…
“But first I must explain to you why it is you that I must tell.”
Halomar stood up slowly and crossed to stand before Kalmar. He fixed him sharply with both sets of eyes.
“You are undoubtedly the greatest student I have ever taught, Kalmar. Your understanding of the philosophies was more exact than any other. Your compassion, your charity was always more genuine and more swiftly given than any other. No other student could match you in the martial disciplines. In everything you were exemplary. But let us never be in doubt, Kalmar. I must bring up a subject that I know is painful to you.”
Kalmar nodded, already knowing what was coming.
“When you first came as a novice, most of the Preceptors wanted to turn you away. Indeed, they considered you insolent for showing yourself. A boy who not only had no ability as a seer but who was immune to the effects of Seeing. Impossible to send messages to through the aethyr, and totally incapable of learning the shadow-arts of the battle-seer. I told them, though, that your bravery and intelligence were equal to the task.”
“And I am always grateful,” put in Kalmar.
Halomar smiled briefly.
“You studied and fought all the harder, to prove that you were as capable as the others. In truth, you became greater than them. And that the reason I need you now. Because you are the best of the warrior-monks in this order. But sadly, your lack of seer’s gift is also necessary. You see, just as you cannot See From Afar, you cannot be attacked by hostile seers. You can be observed, but not attacked. Your mind is a shut door to them. And I fear I have a task which our enemies will assail you in both body and mind for attempting.”
Kalmar blinked.
“Who are these enemies you speak of?” he asked.
Halomar sighed, and walked across to a jug of water on the research table. He poured two glasses and handed one to Kalmar.
“When I was a young man – after becoming a full initiate – I travelled widely across the Solar Sea. In particular I spent six months alone in contemplation on a small abandoned Realm. There were signs of civilisation, long abandoned, amidst great wind-swept peaks and valleys. It was a beautiful place, if fierce and difficult to live in. Few would go there because this Realm sat upon the very edge of the calm tides of the Solar Sea, on the very boundary of the wildlands. Indeed, I supposed that the long gone civilisation in that place had been wiped out by an Arakul raid in ages past. Yet I was not afraid. I found great spiritual solace in that place.
“Anyway, I recently found myself wondering about that place. I knew that none had been there since: the wildlands surged out and consumed that Realm ten years after I was there. That meant even spirit-seeing it would be difficult. But I desired to look upon it. So I seated myself in a quiet moment here and I sent my spirit to See From Afar. It was idle curiosity, you understand. I sat for some hours, my spirit wandering across the Solar Sea, before I finally came to that place. I had expected forlorn crags and quiet, windswept valleys, the vision of my youth returned to me. It was difficult to took concentration to penetrate the churning tides of the wildlands and I had hoped that the serenity I had once found would await me.
“What I found – and I thank the gods of Element that I did even if I pay for it with life – was what may be the doom of us all.”
Halomar sighed, and stared into the distance. Kalmar did not press him, knowing that whatever awful revelation was coming would not be long.
“The Arakul have come again,” Halomar said quietly.
Kalmar almost sighed with relief.
“Those are ill tidings, Eald,” he said, “but not dire. The Arakul will come. We will repel them. It has always been the way.”
Halomar shook his head.
“This is not like before, my boy. Never since the days of Garlamesh himself have the Arakul come like this. As I soared over that Realm, I did not see a raiding party of them. I saw great lines of yurts stretching away into the distance, and uncountable numbers of Arakul, millions of them. They wore uniforms, identical fatigues, and they moved like an organised army. I saw no distrustful glances nor distances between different tribes. No exotic apparel for different chiefs. Their natural fierceness was still there, but channelled into the mask of martial discipline. I knew I could go no further into the wildlands, the currents of the aethyr are too difficult, but I saw ships floating down from the Solar Sea in the distance, carrying yet more of them. An army of Arakul greater than any in living memory gathers not more than four months travel across the Solar Sea from this very Realm and yet more of them may be have yet to arrive.”
Kalmar felt numb. His own contemptuous quips about the Arakul from the morning’s training session rang hollow in his own ears now. He would not insult the Eald but asking him if he was sure of what he had seen.
“That is not all,” said Halomar quietly, “for something else has changed. Not only were these Arakul more disciplined and in greater numbers than we have seen before, but they carry some other malefic power or force. I was spotted. Somewhere down in that mass, for the briefest moment, something saw my spirit.”
Kalmar blinked. This was a step beyond even the previous news.
“But Eald, the Arakul are weak seers are best. Their shamans have always had to use blood sacrifice to give them enough vital energies to steer the aethyr at all.”
Halomar smiled thinly.
“Traditionally, dear boy, they also fight amongst themselves and show very little uniformity of dress between one tribe and another. Things have changed. Either another force is guiding them, or they have learned new ways. Possibly both. But whatever the case, something down there saw me. I fled immediately, willed myself away from the wildlands and back across the Solar Sea. I landed back in my body shortly after, and at first I was of a mind to tell the Parliament of Eltor. But even before my mind could betray the obvious truth that the word of a rambling old Eald will never convince the rulers of Eloytia, at least not fast enough, I realised another problem.”
Halomar sighed and looked around the room.
“I rose from my seat, and caught a flicker of movement out in the orchard. I looked toward it but there was nothing there. A few moments later, I thought I could make something out – perhaps a hooded figure – beside my bench outside, but again there was nothing. But I could feel something. I could feel a watchful presence. I carried out mental disciplines, shields to keep out whatever was watching. But that is like erecting a wall against the wolves. They may not reach you but they can still prowl at the edge of your territory, waiting for you to leave the protection of the wall. They recede at times, and then I may snatch some sleep. Then they will return.”
Kalmar did not struggle to take the information in. Now that danger was involved, he registered everything with calm resolve. He looked around the suddenly dark-seeming room, though he knew that with his blindness to the aethyr he could never see the lurking spirits.
“That’s why you have been inside with the door closed,” he said, “for them to observe every detail of what you do they would have to approach close enough for you to see them closely and perhaps repel them.”
Halomar smiled.
“As ever, you learn quickly. But now, what you must do. I have already written my fears into a ciphered message which I have despatched to both the Parliament of Eltor and to the Realm of Eadenn. But with the fierce powers that I have sensed arrayed against us, either message may fall into the wrong hands, or simply fail to reach its recipient. I want you to travel to Eadenn with a copy of the message and bring it to King Xariel’s attention. Tell him that Halomar sent you and he will listen.”
Kalmar felt a stab of shock more pronounced than anything he had felt so far.
“You know the King of the Draconis?” he blurted out.
Halomar chuckled.
“All old men know each other intimately, didn’t you know? He and I met many years ago, fighting the spawn of the Pale Vastness. We spent fourteen hours holding a small ravine with a handful of men until reinforcements arrived. We have spoken many times since. He is a great man, and may be the only hope for any of us.”
Kalmar sighed, an old doubt rising to mind even at this desperate moment.
“It seems ill to ask the Draconis to fight our battles for us. We have never had much need to in the past.”
Halomar chuckled again.
“There is need now like never before. And besides, you know as well as I that much of the Eloytian way is derived from the code of the Draconis. Now please, we must make haste. Every hour counts. It is ill that I have wasted four days since the vision to act, but from this moment on time becomes of the essence.”
Kalmar was about to ask why when suddenly, and without warning, a pot on one of the shelves on the other side of the room fell from its place and smashed on the floor. Kalmar jumped at the sound and stared at the fallen item. His eyes ticked to Halomar, who had tensed again, and was staring coolly at a spot in the corner of the room near the fallen jar.
“Now they know what I know,” he said, his voice even, “and they have no more reason to delay attack. One of them has already fled to report to whatever or whoever they answer to.”
Kalmar felt horror creeping into him as he looked around for things he could never see.
“How long have they been here?” he asked, his mouth dry.
Halomar sighed and stood up, still staring into the corner.
“They entered the room when you said ‘and I am always grateful’. There were two of them, but one has gone. The other is in the corner. The message is rolled up and sealed, and lies on the table next to the open ones. Please go now, Kalmar, and make me proud as ever you have.”
Kalmar looked towards the table, and the sealed scroll that he saw lying next to the chart of the Solar Sea. He realised with a strange sense of reluctance that in order to pick it up he would have to step within a pace of the unseen, malevolent entity.
“It can’t hurt you,” said Halomar, “now please, go!”
Kalmar took a step towards the table, determined. He glared at the empty corner, knowing that he must be face-to-face with whatever Halomar could see.
“Harm him, and I will hunt you across all time and space,” he snarled, and grabbed the sealed message. As he did he felt a sudden tug at his right elbow, a freezing touch as if an icy gale had flashed across his skin. He saw Halomar’s gaze track the thing sharply, and suddenly, the ancient Eald was straining, the crystals of his skin glowing with a dark red shimmer as he exerted his strength and will against something unseen before him. Kalmar wanted to unsheathe his glave and hack the spectral monster to shreds, but knew that such fanciful thinking was foolish. The Eald knew his own duty, and had outlined Kalmar’s for him. If he delayed now, he could not save the Eald’s life, and he might jeopardise his own mission. He bounded from the house and down the slope outside, wishing that he could see any lurking aethyr-beasts that might have been there to observe him, and dashed through the orchard, his mind whirling. He did not look back, but he did offer a final thought for Halomar.
Goodbye, oldest and most beloved friend.

It didn’t take Kalmar long to devise a plan to execute Halomar’s plan. He had slowed to a quick walk after a few seconds in the orchard, unwilling to appear strange to the townsfolk, who might be inclined to gossip about a warrior-monk sprinting across the orchard. Though the five minute walk had been agonising, and Kalmar constantly feared that the malicious spirit that he had left his old friend wrestling might have vanquished the ageing abbot and even now be watching him, he knew that maintaining the appearance of normality was paramount. He even stopped to comment to a local baker on his joy at the news of the man’s first children.
As soon as he had reached the bulk of the monastery, he had immediately walked to the most insignificant storeroom he could, and told a novice to bring sister Jarla immediately. His fellow Preceptor had arrived with commendable haste.
“What’s the trouble?” Jarla had asked without pause as soon as she had set foot in the storeroom.
“I wish I could explain. Suffice it to say that the Eald has sent me on a mission of uttermost urgency. I cannot explain further, save to say that enemies may be watching the monastery. When I leave it must be as a normal townsperson. I need someone – a novice, preferably – to fetch me here some labourer’s clothing and a purse of monies. Further, sister, I need you to announce to the world that brother Kalmar befell a tragic accident of some kind and has passed away. Let none but the Eald no the truth!”
If he yet lives, he added bleakly to himself. Jarla looked appalled.
“Enemies at the gate? Counterfeiting your own death? Lying to the people? What madness is this?”
Kalmar sighed.
“Please, Jarla! If all is well I will return in a few months and all can be set right, at which time I will bear all responsibility for any wrongdoing. If you and I cannot convince the world I am gone – and that a simple farmer walks out of here in one hour – then we may all be dead in a year!”
Jarla blinked, stunned, and then nodded.
“As you wish it, brother. But I will want a full explanation when you return.”
Kalmar laughed tightly.
“If the gods of Element will it, then you will have explanation, apology and I will take all of your duties for a whole winter.”
Jarla was looking ashen, a slightly mauve light creeping into her skin-crystals as her anxiety escaped her control. She quickly shut it down and returned to healthy glowing light blue.
“I will not get a novice: they might speak of this. I will get the things you need myself.”

Jarla returned twenty minutes later, carrying a bag of coins which in quick inspection would be easily equal to paying for his journey. She also carried the clothing of a farm labourer in a satchel, presumably to avoid notice. Within minutes, Kalmar had removed his robe and donned a robust pair of brown trews, a heavy cotton cream-coloured shirt and a pair of brown boots. He donned an faded old brown jacket which was not unpleasantly warm in spite of the sun. he looked upon his glave with some degree of regret.
“I am saddened to part with it,” he said as he looked at the exquisite weapon, “but needs must.”
Jarla nodded.
“I will present it to any doubters as evidence of your death,” she said, “everyone knows you’d never give it up. Here, I have a weapon more fitting a farmer.”
She presented him with a stout battle-axe, three feet long, with a single head and a spike on the reverse.
“I am sorry, it is a base weapon…” she began, but Kalmar shook his head.
“No. It has a good feel. True, it is not an Eloytian battle-glave, but I feel that brave men have used it to protect their loved ones in the past. Good men carried this axe.”
Jarla smiled gently.
“Thankyou. It was my father’s.”
Kalmar gave her a brief smile and squeezed her shoulder.
“I will return it to you. And I will honour your father’s memory with it.”
Jarla nodded.
“I know. Now, go! Whatever this dread errand that is enough to separate Kalmar the Righteous from his glave, it cannot wait for idle conversations to finish. Go!”
Kalmar nodded, and hurried to the door.
“Thankyou again, Jarla. I will see you when I return.”

Kalmar ambled out of the southern entrance of the monastery, away from the town of Carndea. He inserted a plodding, rolling gait to his step, quite different to his own marching step, and on the rare occasions that day when he encountered a stranger in the road he would greet him in a broad, rural accent and move on before he could be more comprehensively engaged. In one pocket he had his purse. In another, toggled shut, he carried the message for king Xariel. He knew that if he kept up his quick but deliberately unhurried pace he should reach the city of Marodoya within a day or so. He’d have preferred to go all the way to Eltor, but he simply didn’t have time to cross the Sea of Garmella to reach the Realm’s capital on the continent of Elthoron. Not if he wanted to reach Eadenn before it was too late.
Every time he thought that he was exaggerating the urgency in his own mind, he remembered the look on Halomar’s face as he described endlessly legions of seething Arakul, less than half a year’s travel from Eloytia. Then he remembered the old man battling some nebulous creature of the void in what he’d thought to be the safety of his own home.
Kalmar would head to Marodoya. Then he would catch the next fastest ship across the Solar Sea towards Eadenn, and the Draconis.

Published in: on January 2, 2009 at 12:03 am  Leave a Comment  

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