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Alkamar, the village in the moonlight

South of the Mother Mountains, past the dark peaks of the Moglon range, the Harak steppes stretched out. A Gorotai nomad starting out from the centre of their kingdom could ride for weeks in most directions without the terrain changing the least. All the way the horse's hooves would thunder against the scorched grasses, all the way horse and rider would be lashed by the dry wind of the steppes. But if the rider turned his horse southwards, he soon would find his way barred by a great white mountain.

When the sun shone, the crags glinted as though made of metal, and the desert nomads called it Silver Mountain. Apart from a few clumps of thick brown grass and bushes which clung tenaciously to cracks in the rock, the hill sides were completely covered by weathered and gnarled boulders. The cold of winter burst open these boulders and reduced them to gravel. Long summers dried the hill sides, and the autumn winds ground the gravel to sand.

The nomads of the desert never camped on Silver Mountain. There was little grazing to be had, and less game to hunt. The Gorotai favored the open steppes. No-one could catch them as long as they were on horseback. The people of the steppes were suspicious of cliffs and rocks, and they left the mountain to the snakes and the lizards and the desert rats.

Some said there was a curse on the Silver Mountain. No-one knows whether or not the Gorotai believed in the curse, but Bürthe Kha-Khan ordered that all who rode south should lose their heads, and that was curse enough for most of the desert nomads.

A boy clambered up the foot of the mountain. The gentle lower slopes he covered quickly, though there were no paths up the mountain. Some way up the mountain he came to a scree, where he dropped to hands and knees and scrambled on like a spider. Once past the scree he rose and hurried on upwards.

The uneven stones made running difficult. The boy stumbled and hit his knee on the ground, but quickly got to his feet again. For a moment he stared up at the peak. He shook his head wearily before continuing with a slight limp.

Wide grey trousers flapped around the boy's legs, and one of the trouser-knees began to show red. The boy had twisted bits of leather around his feet. The soles of his feet were tough as horn, but not even horn could provide protection against the sharp stones. The sun had burnt his upper body dark brown, almost black, and a narrow leather thong held the raven-black hair back in a tight pony-tail. An oak staff was bound sideways across his back by a thin strap.

The boy ran with his narrow lips tightly pressed together. He breathed through his nose and tried to ignore the clouds of stone dust. He continued his way up the mountain until the sun reached noon, by which time he was about halfway to the top.

He rested a while on a ledge, calming his breath and his beating heart. His lips were still tightly pressed together. His throat burned, but he kept his mind free of all thoughts of water.

The boy began to run down again, hopping from boulder to boulder. The blood on his knee had dried, and the limp was gone. But he still kepthis lips pressed tightly together.

The sun was setting and it had turned cold by the time the boy arrived at the plain by the foot of Silver Mountain. A little underground stream bubbled to the surface. A handful of thorn bushes and a few straggly trees, twisted by the wind, grew in the stony earth around the water.

By the remains of a fire a onearmed man sat, feet folded under him and a woven cape over his shoulders. His hand lay with the palm upwards in his lap. His black hair was tied in a knot in the neck. A few streaks of grey in the hair, some deep wrinkles in his forehead and a fine net of lines around his eyes were all that revealed his age, for otherwise the face was as though sculpted in stone. It revealed little of what he had been through, and less of what he was thinking.

The onearmed man raised his head and fastened his almond eyes on the boy as he came running towards the oasis. He grunted enquiringly.

At sunrise Tonteh had filled his mouth with water and begun to run up the mountainside. Now, in front of Shiriken, he spat that same mouthful of water out onto the ground.

The boy lay down by the little spring that bubbled up through the stony ground and trailed his fingers in the clear water. For a long time he lay without moving, throat burning and dust clogging his nostrils. The water trickled by just in front of his face, and the dampness raised goose-pimples across his chest.

"Animals can smell their way to water," Shiriken said. "Most menns use sight alone when searching for something. Where you are going, you will need the use of all your senses. Learn to track down water with your nose, Tonteh."

Tonteh let the faint smell eat its way into his nostrils. He let the soft sighing of implant itself in his ears. After an eternity he slaked his thirst.

Afterwards Tonteh sat down by the campfire. Shiriken nodded towards a flat stone with the remains of a lizard he had cooked over the flames. Tonteh ate slowly, carefully chewing each mouthful of the tough meat.

Heavy eyelids with long lashes drooped over a pair of black eyes. It gave his face an appearance of sleepiness, but Tonteh listened carefully to everything Shiriken said. Skin of burnished bronze was stretched over a face of scraped bone. Thin lips stretched out to a broad mouth. The glow from the fire highlighted the high cheekbones and the crooked nose. Few of the Rawhide Clan would have recognized him now. The boy who had wandered southwards four years earlier no longer existed.

"Now you must practise writing the runes," Shiriken said when the meal was over.

Tonteh smoothed some sand and drew on the ground with a twig. Shiriken kept his eye on him all the time, giving him all the while new and more testing challenges. Finally, when Shiriken grunted his satisfaction, Tonteh brushed away all trace of his exercises.

"Remember that these signs are dangerous," Shiriken said. "Never leave them behind you. Promise me this. You must understand the runes, but you must never use them yourself. Kraken fears all who understand his runes, so it is important that you never reveal that you know their secrets."

Tonteh sat in thought for a few moments, then he repeated all Shiriken had said. The onearmed man grunted, and Tonteh rolled out his blanket. He untied the staff, laid it by his side, and crept under the blanket.

Shiriken waited a while, listening to Tonteh's breathing. Once he was sure that the boy was asleep, Shiriken began to speak. He spoke in a low voice, but his words were clear and the tone urgent. All night Shiriken spoke to the sleeping boy.

Tonteh woke early. He fastened the oaken staff to his back and took a small bow, some arrows, and the remains of the lizard they had eaten the previous evening. Some distance from the oasis he tied the skin, bones and innards of the lizard to a thorny root. Then he sat on his haunches behind a stone.

The sun had risen halfway towards noon. The rays burned and flies buzzed, but he just sat there, staring at the bait. A pair of wings swished, but did not look up, knowing well what flew overhead. The vulture would circle many times before finally landing, and then it would attract other birds.

Finally one bird landed and waddled round the bait, pink head bobbing. The bird began to pick at the skin, but the twine held the bait firmly.

Tonteh waited without moving a muscle.

Seeing that it was safe another vulture landed. The birds beat their black and white wings as they fought over the innards. Two arrows from Tonteh's little bow settled the issue. The wings flapped slightly, but neither bird took off. The boy emerged from his hiding place. Several more vultures circled overhead, but they would not land now that they had seen the fate of the two below.

Tonteh pulled out his arrows and untied the twine round the bait. He cleaned the arrows in the sand, coiled up his twine and left the bait to the birds. Later they would overcome their fears, and, after eating, they would forget what had happened to their relatives.

On his way back to the oasis he spied a dust-cloud far to the north. The cloud grew larger and larger, until at last he could make out some riders. He hastened back to the camp and called out to Shiriken.

"Riders coming this way!" he cried excitedly.

Shiriken sat on the bare ground with his hand in his lap and his head bowed. He grunted without looking up.

"Riders approaching!" Tonteh repeated, "at least three of them."

Shiriken raised his head. "Do you remember when we travelled south from the Mother Mountains?"

"Yes," Tonteh said.

"Why did we never rest at any oasis, or stay long by a water hole?"

"To avoid other travellers," Tonteh said.

"And why did we avoid other travellers?"

"So that they should not see you and me together."

Shiriken nodded. "That rule still apply. Nobody must see you and me together. There are not many that know my face, but none of them must know your face too. I do not know what errand these riders have here, but I will see to them. And you must take care that they don't know of your existence."

Tonteh nodded.

"Do you remember how you should talk when you walk among strangers?" Shiriken asked.

"I must relax the muscles in my lips when I speak, and only half pronounce the words. I will not mumble, but not speak clearly either. I will make it hard for others to hear and understand what I say. If I do this, people will soon cease to show an interest in me," Tonteh said.

"I should bend my head forwards and never look into the eyes of other men. But I must not blink if others look at me. That means I have something to hide. I must look down, as though I think little of myself. I must never allow others to develop a feeling about me, not hatred, not anger, not scorn, not even joy at seeing me. I must swim in their feelings like a salmon swims upstream, unaffected by the current."

Shiriken nodded in satisfaction. "Tell me one more time."

Word for word Tonteh repeated what he just said.

"Good. And now you can prepare the food."

Tonteh did as he was told. He gathered small branches from the thorn bushes around the stream, then he scraped the earth away from the fireplace. Beneath were the embers of the previous night's fire, still glowing faintly. He placed a little dry grass over them and gently blew life into the ashes. Then he stacked the branches over the flames. By the time he had finished skinning the birds the flames had settled to a glowing melt. He cut the meat into thin strips and laid them on a flat stone together with some herbs he had gathered. Them he placed the stone over the fire.

All the time he heard the faint rythm of hooves in the distance. But Shiriken showed no signs of interest, so Tonteh did not mention the riders again. When the food was ready Tonteh wrapped most of it up in a piece of leather, dividing what remained in two portions.

They ate in silence.

Afterwards Tonteh sat a while by the remains of the fire, staring into the red and black depths. It gave off little warmth, but the colours changed all the time, and this calmed his spirit. Then he untied the strap holding the staff to his back and lay down to sleep.

Tonteh awoke with a start. Beneath him he felt the faint vibrations of horses hooves pounding somewhere close by. He looked round.

Shiriken was gone.

Tonteh grabbed his oak staff and leapt to his feet. He could not see the onearmed man anywhere. An icy claw grabbed at his guts. For four years Shiriken had been his only company. Now he was alone.

A faint smell of smoke drifted in the air around him. He looked over at the fire. Shiriken had covered it with earth. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Then he began to smell his way towards the source of the smoke. He moved slowly and cautiously, taking care to make no noise. Finally he came to a small, rocky outcrop.

Shiriken sat motionless by a fire below the rock. Tonteh heard the thudding of hooves approaching still closer. Finally five men came riding out of the night. They reined their horses and dismounted in a single movement. One of the riders had difficulty reining his horse and almost tripped as he got down. The others laughed, and he hit the animal hard across the muzzle.

Even from the ledge Tonteh could sense the harsh, acrid smell from these men. He peered with curiosity at the first strangers he had seen in four years. On the ground they seemed clumsy. They had broad, erect shoulders, long arms and short legs which carried their heavy torsos forward in a rolling gait. Eyes peered from tiny cracks in yellow, leathery skin. Their high cheek-bones and sharp chins cut their faces into triangles. One of the men had braided his beard in an oily spike, the rest were clean-shaven. They wore sheep-skin cloaks over long blue silken shirts and oxhide birnies. The wide, brightly coloured breeches hung in bags around their knees, and they wore pointed, curly-toed boots of grey felt. Their hats were trimmed with white fur, and all of them were armed with short horn bows, clubs and long spears.

Every day Shiriken and Tonteh practised a different language, so that the twelve year old boy would understand the most common languages of the world. Now he listened with great eagerness to the words of the warriors. Even the guttural sounds of the Gorotai seemed like music to him, for it was the first time in years that he had heard any other voice than his own and Shiriken's. But his pleasure was mixed with fear as he watched the men approach his teacher.

"Hai, Shiriken Khan," grunted the bearded man.

"Hai, Olon Tobar," Shiriken grunted back in their tongue. "The Gorotai were told to stay away from Silver Mountain until I declared otherwise. What is your errand here now?"

"You are the same pleasant chap I remember from old, Shiriken. The loss of an arm did not mellow you." Olon Tobar smiled, revealing a pair of filed eye-teeth. "We must talk seriously about the Silver Mountain. There is restlessness among the desert families, and certain difficulties have arisen."

Shiriken stared at Olon Tobar until the Gorotai warrior looked away. Shiriken grunted, and then he nodded towards the rest of the riders. "Dsjagatai Khan I know. Who are the other three? Why are you bringing them here? I do not trust them."

"Juro and Tuli are sons of myself and Bürthe Kha-Khan. They were just little boys when we rescued you, but they still remember the battles that followed when Kraken hunted us for revenge. The one who has not learned to ride yet is Ogodai Greeneye," Olon Tobar chuckled.

Ogodai Greeneye scowled at his leader with one brown and one green eye, but took his place by the fire without a word. The men sat in silence a while, rubbing their hands together over the fire.

"We bring you greetings from Bürthe Kha-Khan," said Olon Tobar, breaking the silence.

"May she live as long as the falcon flies and hooves beat across Harak. The sword is her word, the Blue People her body, Tsjingen the wolf that protects her," said Shiriken and spat.

The others spat to.

"She is wondering how much longer we are to guard the lands around Silver Mountain," said Olon Tobar.

"Forever," said Shiriken.

"For many years we have chased away any who dared approach Silver Mountain," Olon Tobar continued. "We do not know why we do this, but still we do it. Rumours are spreading, that a great treasure is hidden here. It is harder to keep people away. Soon Bürthe Kha-Khan will be unable to restrain the most restless of the warriors."

"Have them killed," said Shiriken.

Dsjagatai Khan snorted. "If there is a treasure here, then the Blue People should have their share."

Shiriken stared at him. "Shall men say that the Gorotai do not honor their word? Shall men say that the Gorotai is like the hare, hopping from one place to another, wherever the sun happens to be shining, without a thought for the past or the future?"

Tonteh wished he had brought his bow. The oaken staff would be of little use against the men standing beneath him, for he had not yet learned to make the staff sing and hum in the air. All the same, Tonteh steeled himself to leap down to assist his teacher.

Shiriken looked at each and every one of them. "Juro and Tuli, as sons of Bürthe Kha-Khan, you are bound by blood to honor her word. Dsjagatai Khan, do not let the search for fool's gold blind you. Ogodai Greeneye, do you wish your descendants to live as slaves beneath the yoke of Kraken? And Olon Tobar, you are the husband of the Kha-Khan. You lost many of your own blood the time you carried me on horseback through the lands of Kraken. Was all that in vain?"

"The Gorotai are tired of obeying the words of others," grunted Dsjagatai Khan.

Where Shiriken had sat by the fire, a grey shadow leaped into the air, seemingly melting into the smoke. The oaken staff hummed, and then Tonteh heard a sound like the crack of a branch breaking. Dsjagatai Khan collapsed in a heap where he was sitting. The desert riders watched while the smoke twirled away, and all that remained was a furious pale man with a staff in his hand.

"Keep your word, and Tsjingen the Sky-wolf will guard and protect you." Shiriken's voice shook. "Break it, and the Blue People will rot from within. The grandsons of your grandsons will call on me, begging the night to give them one more chance to keep their word. But the night will be silent. There will be no one in the darkness to answer their prayers. And then the Blue People will be like a stone thrown into water. After the rings are gone, there will be no trace of you."

Olon Tobar and the others nodded gravely.

"You will keep the Silver Mountain if I have to guard it alone," said Ogodai Greeneye. "None of my blood shall slave under foreign masters."

Juro and Tuli nodded gravely. "It does not become the sons of the Kha-Khan to break her word."

"I remember the fighting fifteen years ago. All the Gorotai remember. Let none say my kinsmen died in vain," said Olon Tobar.

The desert riders shook Dsjagatai Khan awake. He checked to make sure his head was still in place, and when he found it, he gave a grunt.

"I'm glad we arrived after they cut off your arm those years ago," he said. "If you had both your arms today, they probably would have had to tie me across the horse on the way back," said Dsjagatai Khan contentedly. "Keep your treasure, Shiriken Khan."

The men remained sitting a while round the fire, speaking to one another in low voices of good and bad days gone by. Dsjagatai Khan rubbed himself on the forehead a few times, but he did not mention the blow again.

On the ledge above them Tonteh breathed a long sigh of relief.

Later the Gorotai made ready to leave.

"Heyah! Let's ride!"

They leapt into their saddles, and with a last cry of "Hai, Shiriken Khan" rode off into the night.

Tonteh did not wait for the dust behind them to settle. He ran back to the camp, lay down and closed his eyes.

"How much did you hear?" asked Shiriken when he arrived back at the camp.

Tonteh opened his eyes at once. He repeated those parts of the conversation which he had overheard. He had expected Shiriken to be furious, but the onearmed man merely smiled a twisted smile.

"Not one of them spotted you. You're learning," he said. "Tell me about the Gorotai, Tonteh."

"Gorotai means the Blue People. They are divided up into families, with one khan in each family. The khans often file their teeth into sharp points in order to distinguish themselves. The head of all the tribes is Bürthe Kha-Khan, who lives in the tent-city of Harakhom. The Gorotai worship a god whom they call Tsjingen. The name means Son of the Wolf in their language.

Each tribe has its gods. The Snow People in the north worship the white reindeer as a god. That is because they depend on the reindeer for their survival. The god of the island dwellers lives in the storm. That is because they fear the storms that come from the western sea. The Gorotai believe that the Son of the Wolf lives up in the blue sky, because their own land is so flat and they see the sky around them on all sides."

Shiriken nodded. "The Gorotai are like mad war dogs. But they have their place in the world. They are among the few tribes whom Kraken cannot subdue. No-one is able to control them," added Shiriken.

Then his voice changed, and he no longer spoke in his usual firm manner.

"Never follow me again. Let no-one see you together with me. It could be dangerous. They no longer fear me, but they will fear my successor. For this reason your existence must continue to be a secret. Never let anyone see you."

"They spoke of how they had rescued you," Tonteh prompted. "Did they rescue you from Kraken? How were you caught?"

For once the onearmed man did not know what to say. "I had a wife," he whispered. "And a son. I had gone back. I thought none would recognize me, not after all those years. But the soldiers came." Shiriken looked away. He could not speak. "They took her," he whispered. "I was betrayed. There was someone that recognized me, someone that had known me as a child. Itagaki, his name was. I surrendered to save her life. But they killed her anyway."

"And your son?"

"I try not to think of him. You... you are my son now, Tonteh. Not much good have I given you. But you will be the last one of us, that I know. Let that comfort you later."

The almond eyes were filled with sadness, and suddenly the darkness was heavy over Silver Mountain.

"There is a man, that can tell you my story. You remember what I have told you to do, if we ever part?"

"To go south," Tonteh said. "In the village of Holin I should ask for the bowmaster, and tell him my name is Chepe Nolon."

"Yes," Shiriken said. "And he will tell you my story. I can tell you no more, I am too tired."

Tonteh was still curious, but he knew it was no use persisting once Shiriken had made up his mind. Tonteh turned over and pulled the blanket around him. Sleep came hard as he lay there, sensing the sadness of the onearmed man.

Finally, when Tonteh was asleep, Shiriken began to speak softly. Every night he spoke thus to the sleeping boy, always in the same low, urgent voice.

Half a year later the air began to turn colder. Tonteh wore the same clothes, but in addition he had a woolen cape to cover his shoulder. His head stuck through a vent in the woven blanket, and he wrapped the cloth around his body.

The sun peeped over the horizon in the east. Shiriken nodded towards the peak of Silver Mountain, and the two began their ascent. The onearmed man went first. It was hard for Tonteh to keep pace with the grown man, but he did not complain. When they reached the top, they saw the sunset colour the sky red.

"It is time for you to learn to breathe," said Shiriken.

Tonteh looked up in surprise. Surely everyone could breathe, or else they wouldn't be alive?

"There are four ways of breathing," continued Shiriken, ignoring the look on the boy's face. "You can breathe with your shoulders, in small mouthfuls, like a frightened sparrow. Those who are on the point of dying from some illness breathe like this. They strain for air, and each mouthful is a gasp.

You can breathe with your lungs, like a frog that blows itself up and croaks out the wind without using it. This way of breathing you see among men who are not in the habit of working hard. When their arms and feet tire, their chests puff like a bellows. It does them no good at all to breathe so much when the body is unable to make use of the wind.

You can breathe with your stomcah, as do peole who make much use of their bodies. They draw the wind deep into their lungs and let the stomach set the rhythm of their breathing. But even if you breath with your stomach you will find yourself at the mercy of your emotions.

You can breath with the soles of your feet. Draw the wind right down to the ground on which you stand. That way you breathe with all your body. Only then will you be able to control your emotions. You will never be afraid, nor angry. When you are afraid, you will move too quickly, when you are angry you will grow careless. Give an outward show of fear or anger, but empty yourself inside. Fear begets fear. Anger begets anger. Free of fear and anger your breathing will be as it should be. Being as it should be you will be void of emotion."

Tonteh's black eyes were wide open as he listened to the onearmed man. Then Shiriken bent forward. With his one hand he raised up a flat stone and balanced it on its edge.

"Lie down here," Shiriken said, nodding at the spot where the stone had lain. "Do as if you were asleep."

Tonteh lay down on the ground and closed his eyes. After a while he began to breathe evenly. Then something fell across his chest, driving all the wind from his lungs. Opening his eyes he saw the stone over him. Shiriken was standing on top of it.

Tonteh gasped for air, but the weight squeezed his lungs together. He flapped his arms and legs, but nothing helped. His head pounded and blood hissed in his ears.

Fear begets fear, a voice whispered in his head.

His strength drained away. High in the night sky he could see the stars. There was no rush now. Finally his world darkened, and memories of his first breath returned to him. The memory grew in his mind and entered his body as he lay there with his eyes shut.

The hardness melted from the face of the onearmed man as he looked down. The boy breathed evenly beneath the stone. Each breath lifted the great weight in a gentle rhythm. Never did he complain. Never did he ask for help. Driving him as hard as this was like a knife in Shiriken's stomach.

"Train hard and fight easy," whispered Shiriken.

He cursed the generations of nightwarriors that had handed down such a heavy burden. He knew the fate of those who refused to accept the burden. His thoughts wandered back into the past, and his eyes no longer saw Tonteh.

"Anïko, oh Anïko," he whispered, as the tears ran down across his pale cheeks. "What happened to our son?"

His face grew hard again. Anïko was dead, and their son was gone. Only Tonteh was left. Only the last of the nightwarriors was left.