Xariel at Council

Xariel took a long moment to stare around the Chamber of the Council of Ancients before he called for silence. It was the custom that the Ancients would talk among themselves until the king called for their attention, and it was a tradition that Xariel was glad of. It allowed him to look at them interacting as men, rather than debating and discussing as a committee. The chamber was huge, its amethyst pillars soaring away a hundred feet above the higher tier of seats. Far above, a great glass dome allowed the dying sunlight to filter into the upper echelons. In the main, the chamber was lit by hundreds of warm white candles set into specially wrought openings in the amethyst of the walls and seats, and some supported on free-standing candelabras of sculpted diamond.
The actual audience chamber itself was about a hundred yards long, and the tiered seating was arranged in a circle around the amethyst tiles of the floor where Xariel stood. The six hundred Draconis seated around the circle were organised into various groups: the artists and poets in one enclave, the labourers and farmers in another, the scholars in yet another, the seers beside them, and the intimidating figures of the military representatives in another. In a small section removed from any other was the simple throne of the king, where Xariel would sit when another took the floor. There were seats of ornately carved amethyst for any personal supporters he chose to bring. At the moment only Halgaea was seated there. Xariel’s gaze drifted occasionally to a simply wrought wooden chair place beside the beautiful amethyst seats. There was a certain stubborn defiance to the mere placement of the seat which spoke eloquently of the owner, and made his absence all the more keenly felt.
Xariel pushed the thought from his mind, and gave himself a moment to think on his address. The truth was that he had been ready to receive lots of criticism for what would surely look like wild doomsaying, but since returning from the high hills, he had garnered fresh evidence.
He had received a cry for help.
It was fortunate, in many respects, that he had been so edgy about the situation. It was only that hyper-tension, as well as his prodigious abilities, that had allowed him to hear the faintest whisper in the Aethyr, the slightest sigh, as of a voice heard on the wind from miles away. Curious, Xariel had allowed his consciousness to float across the Solar Sea, seeking out the shadow of a shadow of a voice.
Except that, as he closed in on it, he had realised that it was a voice screaming as loudly as the owner could manage, a frantic shouted warning projected through the Aethyr with all the significant power that the seer could put into it. He had heard the pain in the voice and known that whoever it was, he was burning his own mind and spirit to boost the strength of his distressed calling.
Xariel had closed in, and had seen it all in a rush. The seer was projecting everything all at once, his self-control, which Xariel sensed was usually good cast to the wind. He was an Eloytian, a senior brother of the Eloytian Way named Mantar. He had been posted out to a tiny outpost on the edge of the wildlands to supervise acolytes as they trained in the way. It was a gentle, dull but pleasant posting. He missed his friends back at the monastery, especially now that he knew, with great calm, that he would never see them again.
Mantar had accepted the inevitability of his own demise. His frantic screaming was his fear for every living man, woman and child on the Solar Sea. The message that was the focus of his suicidal projecting was simple, and emphatic to the point that it scorched Xariel’s mind.
The Arakul are coming!
Then he saw what Mantar had seen. The skies black with Arakul scout vessels. An army larger than any seen before, vaster than the three armies which had already struck that year. And it was only the vanguard. A vast seething ocean of Arakul swept like brushfire across the surface of the tiny Realm. Xariel saw through Mantar’s eyes as the brief, bitter struggle at the gate of the outpost took place. He felt Mantar’s flash of pride as a young acolyte named Konlar stood his ground and killed an Arakul warrior before being cut down.
Xariel had watched helpless as the Arakul burst into the chamber where Mantar was sending his message. He rose to meet them, calm but defiant, and swept up his glaive. He killed two before a strange Arakul with a dark blue greatcoat and a silver face-plate stepped from among the ranks. He looked Mantar in the eyes with strange, burning green eyes, and Xariel felt the strangest sensation of exposure. Then the Arakul lifted an ornate scythe-like weapon and leapt forward with impossible speed.
Then Xariel was abruptly back in his own body, with the chilling knowledge that his worst fears had been realised and exceeded.
With that knowledge, Xariel watched the Council of Ancients. Having gone into Winter Recess, they all knew there was something odd about their having been called at this time. But the atmosphere was generally optimistic, the attitude of people who believe themselves to have lived through the worst of a storm.
Xariel sighed and clapped his hands once. Immediately, the Council came to order, all conversations forgotten as they focused on the king.
“Good morning,” he said, unsure how he should break the news to them, before deciding that straightforwardness was the only realistic way.
“There’s no easy way for me to say this, my friends. I bring you grave news. News worse than any in living memory.”
He paused for a moment, feeling the Aethyr ripple and churn uneasily at the collective shock and disbelief of the assembled Ancients. He pushed on.
“The three Arakul invasions we have endured this year have only been the opening volleys. I have received a vision – a message of warning from an Eloytian brother on an isolated outpost in which I saw the advance guard of an army so vast that it must dwarf all three of the invasions we have repelled together. The number of ships that I have borne witness to alone would carry so many troops as to prove this, and all of them were scouting vessels. The Arakul are coming and this time, I suspect, they mean to do more than simply raid. They are coming to conquer the Solar Sea.”
The Council of Ancients exploded. Hundreds of voice roared out, alarm, denial and anger banging around the aeon-old columns. The aethyr roiled in protest. Xariel frowned, and clapped once more.
“Calm yourselves!” he barked sternly, “we are, together, the Council of Ancients. I sense some of you doubt me. If that is so I invite any seer among you to read the truth of what I say from my very mind.”
He glared challengingly at the seers and astrologers, but none met his gaze. To question the king on such a matter would have been abysmally rude, and in any case, Xariel had never been a man given to flights of fancy.
“Now,” he said quietly, “we will discuss this like civilised men. Yes, Demior?”
Demior the Inspired rose to his feet. He was a slight, handsome Draconis, young for an Ancient at only five hundred and fourteen years, and he spoke for the artists’ enclave.
“I am not a military man, Xariel, but I am flummoxed as to how this can be. How can the Arakul have recovered so quickly from the devastating losses inflicted on them over the last few months?”
Xariel sighed.
“Those losses were accepted. The three invasions were scouts for this main attack. They were designed to probe us, to weaken us and to frighten us. They have succeeded completely in those tasks. Whoever their master is, he was willing for every warrior in those advance forces to be slaughtered if need be. Their job was to do as much damage as they could before being repulsed.”
Calladriel the Wise raised his hand. Xariel nodded to him, and the ancient Natural Philosopher rose to his feet.
“Majesty, without wishing to seem defeatist, how are we to react to this? A quarter of our Orders of the Sword have been taken casualty already, their replacements in the rawest stages of training. Dozens of Realms lie devastated and with standing armies almost annihilated. This Arakul strategy is one unseen before, and even were we to have the forces to meet them in the traditional manner I feel that their unorthodox methods might make such tactics obsolete. But that is moot: our armies are insufficient to combat such an invasion in the accepted manner.”
Xariel nodded grimly.
“As ever, Calladriel, you bring reason to a fearful subject. For you have highlighted the issue. We cannot afford to panic nor dither in the face of this threat, yet nor can we use our tried and tested methods. So I put the question to you: what must we do?”
All eyes, including Xariel’s, went to the group of representatives from the Orders of the Sword. Xariel smiled as the great tall warrior in the middle of the front row rose to his feet. He was an impressive physical presence, tall and muscular. One of his eyes had been stabbed out by a raging Markk-nar hundreds of years before, and he wore a patch of dark leather across it. A hundred scars lashed his face. He wore a simple robe of brown Hessian, which if anything seemed to accentuate his awesome power.
“Permission to take the floor, majesty?” he intoned, his voice like thunder.
Xariel nodded.
“I surrender the floor to Master Thorrell,” he said formally.
Thorrell nodded and marched out into the speaking space. Xariel took his seat, and waited as the imposing Master stared about, presumably to make anyone planning an outburst think twice.
“We will need to examine the evidence in detail, and frankly we will need more details,” he boomed, “but the fact is, as terrible as what Xariel describes is, it has a very glaring weakspot. It cannot move fast. For such a vast army to march it must have a fleet of truly colossal size, and to stop such a fleet from being scattered and smashed apart in a hundred battles against lesser forces, they will have to keep to a common Lyda current. The only currents mighty enough to support a fleet so vast will carry vessels fairly slowly. That will give us time to counter them. Outflank them, divide them, whatever we must. However, the king has described an army so vast that even these measures will not suffice. Indeed, the very fact that there is a warlord powerful and cunning enough to unite so many tribes together suggests that they will likely be prepared for whatever we plan. We struggled – let us be truthful, we struggled terribly – to deflect the three invasions we have suffered this year, and if they were just initial assault waves to soften us, out usual way of making war will not avail us. I put before this Council a missive suggesting that we begin immediate military training of every able citizen, both of Eadenn and our allied Realms. Additionally, I put forward that we attempt to fortify every Realm who will accept our aid, and impress severely upon every civilised race the importance of co-operation. Further, it is vital that we discover the fate of Eloytia. They are our oldest allies on the Solar Sea and the oldest enemy of the Arakul. We will need their help if we are to weather the coming storm.
“Be under no delusions, my peers. I have fought on the front more times than I would have wished this year, I have seen legions of Arakul that carpet the land from horizon to horizon. If those were just the precursors of the real battle, be under no delusions that life will go on as normal. If we survive at all the Solar Sea will be a very different place.”
There was a nervous rumbling about the chamber. Xariel carefully hid a smile. In spite of the horror of the situation, he was amused and impressed by Thorrell’s straightforward discourse. Still, he had greater uses for his time than his private amusement at Thorrell’s speechmaking. He subtly opened his aethyr senses, and gauged the flurry of emotions around the Chamber. Concern, of course. Fear. One or two cases of outright stubborn disbelief, but not from individuals who would cause problems. The artists, architects and many of the Scholars clearly felt helpless and frightened in the face of the statements placed before them. Most were doing their best to be analytical, but Xariel knew that after only a few moments to digest what they had heard most wouldn’t have even been able to acknowledge the scale of the problem, let alone think on it in a sensible manner. Thorrell’s spirit was grave, but accepting and the fear that he felt was carefully and professionally managed. Most of the other Masters and Preceptors present were in a similar state of grim acceptance, with varying degrees of fatalism. Thankfully, most of the Council accepted and welcomed Thorrell’s ideas. There was a strong suspicion that some of the peoples of the Solar Sea would prove truculent, and Xariel shared that weary suspicion. But that was a problem for later. In the meantime the fact that he had them all of an accord was a good enough start.
Well, almost all of an accord. He smiled gently to himself as he recognised the cool, collected scepticism of a man who had already spoken. Thorrell had noticed it as well. Not a seer, Thorrell was a legendary reader of men.
“I sense you have reservations, Calladriel?” he boomed.
The ancient scholar rose to his feet and bowed.
“Permission to approach?” he offered politely.
Xariel nodded. The old scholar roseto his feet and moved slowly out into the centre of the chamber to stand with Thorrell.
“I would never doubt the words of King Xariel,” he began, “I have lived under the rule of five kings and he is the wisest and mightiest. Yet I am, as you all know, a man for whom the questions cannot end. My lord king, I must put to you a question that grieves me to ask of so great a seer.”
Xariel waved his hand in consent.
Calladriel bowed.
“You say that the vision you received was an aethyric warning from an Eloytian brother on an isolated outpost. One would assume that this outpost is one of those scattered along the edges of the wildlands?”
Xariel nodded. Calladriel nodded himself, clearly satisfied on one point.
“The Arakul have been gone – or at least they were gone – for four decades. And given the strange fog which I am assured has obscured Eloytia, one may assume that some nefarious power or will may have wished that the Eloytians remain ignorant of the plight that has engulfed the Solar Sea these past months. Presumably to blunt their response to the coming war. In any case, it seems fair to suppose that perhaps that brother was ignorant of the initial three invasions – indeed that he lived to carry us this message would seem proof.
“Without wishing to cast aspersions against the character of this undoubtedly noble Eloytian, he may have been guarding the wildlands in what he may have perceived as a futile duty. Forty years is a long time, especially for Eloytians who may measure a third of their lives in that time. Is it not possible that, diligent though he was, this brother was taken so unawares by the oncoming enemy that his mind exaggerated the details? Is it not possible that he saw a hundred ships but, not having expected any, his mind made them a thousand? You saw things as he saw them, my lord king. Could it be that in the knowledge of his own doom and his determination to warn the Solar Sea he made the threat many times over as great as it really is?”
There was an irritated rumble from both the militant quarter and the seers, and Thorrell looked almost volcanic at the mere suggestion, but Xariel pacified them with a look.
“The question is well asked, my wise friend. But I am sad to assure you that brother Mantar was not flustered nor mistaken. Many of his charges believed that the Arakul were gone forever, but he maintained his vigil with if anything a growing sense of dread as the years slipped past silently. And I have seen the results of just such clouded thinking as you mentioned. When a man imagines that there are more enemies than he really sees, those he had imagined appear as vague outlines and shadows, lacking in detail, to another seer. Though his panic makes them real to the man, an observer sees them for their illusion. What I saw was real: thousands of scouting ships, each fully formed and detailed. If the Arakul themselves had attempted to distort our perceptions of their numbers, they would have attempted to reduce the number of ships we could see, so as to lull us into a confidence. Warlike they may be, but no man could call them stupid.”
Calladriel seemed immune to the rumbling of satisfied smugness from the seers and the Orders of the Sword as he nodded thoughtfully. After a moment, he looked around the Council chamber.
“This being the case, it would seem that we must address some interesting questions. The one that strikes me most strongly at this point is not actually as I mentioned earlier what we may do about the Arakul, though it is linked.
“My question is simply, what kind of organisational and strategic differences have the Arakul implemented that allows such a horde to exist? For surely they could not have raised such a force before. Their considerable industry, intellect and military prowess have always been tempered by their fiercely tribal nature and the sheer complexity of the honour codes that they have held.
“What has changed? Have they developed a centralised government? Have they abandoned or modified their traditional honour-system to make intr-tribal relations easier? Does, as we have always seen, one warlord hold absolute power, and if so, how is he maintaining it over such a force? Similarly, how could one warlord have conquered such vast numbers of tribes in what must have been a fairly short time?
“These questions are not without purpose. In principle I agree with Master Thorrell’s proposal that we begin to provision both ourselves and the peoples of the Solar Sea for a conflict beyond anything we have before experienced. But in the meantime, I suggest a very co-operative policy between the seers and the great scholarly bodies. I recommend that our seers use their aethyr-skill to observe closely the nature, composition and indeed temperament of this great host as it advances beyond the walls of the wildlands which have no doubt shielded it from prying eyes. I will study for day and night the findings of the seers, and I sincerely hope that my brethren will follow my example. Hopefully with study we will find a way of defeating them. Indeed, perhaps if they have changed so much, perhaps we may even find peace with them.”
The last comment brought a smattering of shocked outcries, but Xariel sharply waved them into silence and stood.
“Your counsel is welcome, Calladriel the Wise,” he said, “and it shall be implemented. I command that all scholars put aside other works for the meantime and examine whatever evidence myself and the other seers may discover. Master Thorrell, you will begin the process of arming and fortifying as proposed. Are there any other who wish to speak of this matter?”
Xariel forced himself to avoid glancing at the empty wooden chair, though he saw the eyes of one of two others drawn to it. After a moment, Halgaea rose to her feet.
“Permission to take the floor?” she asked.
“We surrender the floor to Lady Halgaea,” said Xariel, returning to his throne as Calladriel and Thorrell returned to their seats.
Halgaea stood looking around for a moment. Xariel could sense their bemusement. The lady was famous for her loathing of wars and it seemed bizarre that she should speak in what amounted to a war council.
“Master Thorrell is correct,” she said quietly, and Xariel felt a pang of shock. Hal and Thorrell’s mutual dislike was legendary.
“The Solar Sea is going to change, and in spite of all that our lord king and our mighty Orders may do, there will be devastation of a scale we have not before seen. Entire civilisations may yet be put to the torch. You all know me credo. I will not take up a weapon in war, even if the Arakul are howling upon our very doorstep. But I will look after the victims of the carnage. Refugees will be driven across the Solar Sea in their millions. I will set up hospitals and recruit chirurgeons across every Realm where my influence can reach, but the toll will be higher than I can manage for all that. There may come a time when I need to set up hospices and homes for the victims of the coming war anywhere I can. I ask you to be compassionate. If need be, I ask you to take the broken and the abused into your homes. I ask you to help me with resources, with your own apothecaries if you have them, even with shelter. More than this, I ask that you give all of your support for King Xariel and Master Thorrell. The King is good and wise, and whatever differences I may have had with him, the Master is the greatest warrior on the Solar Sea. They will bring us through this darkness. Support them. Pray for them. And pray for… pray for the other heroes scattered across the Solar Sea, ready to fight for our lives.”
Xariel caught the momentary flicker, checked though it was, towards the crude wooden chair.
Halgaea bowed low to Xariel, and then returned to her seat.
Xariel stood once more.
“This council is dismissed. You will all send representations to me each day with accord to your progress. We shall reconvene in five days to discuss progress as a Council.”
He smiled with confidence he did not feel.
“May all divinity be with you,” he said, feeling a flare of faith and pride as he did so. He sat upon his throne once more. As one, the Ancients rose, bowed, and began to make their way from the Council chamber.
Xariel knew he had much to do. He sat for a long moment, considering the form his exact orders to the seers would take.
As the last Ancients left, leaving only himself and Hal, sitting quietly waiting for him, he allowed himself to look at the empty wooden seat.
I wish you were here, old man, he thought.
‘And if I were, I’d tell you to stop bloody daydreaming, lad!’
He smiled as he rose, the fantasy of the snapped response cheering his spirits. He took Halgaea’s arm and left the Council chamber. The world was against them, but for a moment, he felt invincible as his mind slipped into a memory of long-lost youth.
The heat of the furnace. The smell of leather and raw steel. And the rhythmic sound of a hammer rising and falling, striking a piece of near-molten iron.

Published in: on January 26, 2009 at 11:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

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