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.”

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