Logo Image
Alkamar, the village in the moonlight

Tonteh and Shiriken looked at each other. The boy held an oak staff slanting across his chest. The man's single arm hung limp. Tonteh raised the staff above his head and whipped it towards Shiriken's unprotected left side. The onearmed man span round, grabbed the staff and pulled it towards him. With his back towards Tonteh he kicked out with his left heel, catching the boy on the temple.

Dazed from the kick Tonteh watched as Shiriken pulled the staff forward and released the grip. The boy tumbled face-first into the sand. He heard a low, whistling sound as something hit the ground next to his head. He turned and looked up at his teacher.

"You must be quick and strong. But it is even more important that you show no mercy to your enemy. Attack from behind whenever possible. If he is unarmed and you have a knife, all the better. Even better is when he is lying down and you are on your feet. Never help your enemy. Never waste your time in mockery of him. Destroy your opponent as quickly and with as little effort as possible."

Shiriken spread out his blanket on the ground. On it he laid a short bow, some arrows, a knife, several oblong objects made of iron and his oaken staff. He lifted the bow.

"You must learn to shoot well with the bow. At the moment you are able to hunt birds and small animals with it, but to kill a man wearing chain metal is something quite different. But leave the bow for the time being. You will learn about it later."

The words trailed, and for a while Shiriken was lost in memories.

"Yes, you will learn about the bow later. But for now... You need something to throw, but you can't use a knife. Few of those who live in Kraken's land can afford iron, and anything made of metal attracts attention."

Shiriken put the knife aside. Now he went for the small row of iron objects. Each one was about the size of a finger, rectangular at one end, arrow sharp at the other.

"This is called a shu. This is what you must learn to use instead of a knife. These too are made of iron, but they are easier to hide than a knife. Let your hair grow and hide them in your hair. Sew them into small pouches along the seams of your clothes. Bind them with straps to your underarms. Then no-one will be able to see what you are carrying, and they will not be discovered even if someone searches you. And yet a shu is as dangerous as a knife in the hands of someone who knows how to use one."

Shiriken lifted the oak staff and balanced it on his hand. He gave a grunt of satisfaction.

"The staff is the traveller's weapon. Some men tie a knife-blade to the end to make a long spear of it, but this is not a good idea, for then people will know that you are armed. An ordinary staff will not be regarded as a weapon, but oak is hard enough to break the blade of a sword. Modesty is the staff's greatest strength."

Tonteh had heard Shiriken speak of these weapons many times, but thus was his habit. Shiriken would repeat his speeches hundreds of times, till Tonteh knew them by rote. And then, if he ever forgot anything, he could just repeat the words of the teacher, until he remembered.

"By letting the staff glide through your hand you can alter the length of it," Shiriken said. "Depending on your grip, you can use it at close quarters or standing away from your opponent."

Tonteh learned how to describe shapes in the air with the staff, grey, growling shapes that formed an invisible wall between himself and his opponents.

"Use your whole body when you mount an attack, not just the arms that are holding the staff. The strength from your arms, hips and legs grows as it passes though your wrists and fingers."

Almost without exerting himself Tonteh was able to splinter pieces of dry wood as thick as a man's upper arm.

"Learn to think with your hands. You don't have time to think with your head. If you repeat a movement often enough your head will no longer need to tell your body in what to do," said Shiriken.

For some time Shiriken threw small stones at him, and he tried to parry them with the staff. To begin with he crouched down with the staff in front of him and kept his eyes fixed on his teacher's hand. In a few months Tonteh was able to block each stone. Then Shiriken asked him to stand upright and relax. He must cease watching the hand that threw the stones.

"It is good to have a strong wrist and to be supple. It is better still to take your opponent by surprise. You will learn how to fight, yet you must always be careful to conceal the skills you possess. Neither speak nor act in such a way that peole realize you are able to look afteryourself. Never wear armour. Warriors attract attention, and your best defence is to be invisible."

In a few months time Tonteh could wander in his own thoughts some distance from Shiriken, and if a stone suddenly came hurling towards him, his staff would jerk up from the ground and send the stone back with a dry crack. After this Tonteh would wander on as though nothing had happened.

Thus was Tonteh's life. Each day was like the day before. During the day he trained with his teacher, in the evening he ate a meal and at night he slept. Sometimes he heard the tramp of hooves in the distance, and then Shiriken might disappear for a peroid of several hours. Apart from the one occasion when he had sneaked after the onearmed man he had never been winess to these mettings. Later Shiriken would return with clothing, blankets, ropes, dried meat, flatbread and other necessities.

One day Tonteh was woken earlier than usual.

"Now you shall learn to fight the way a wanderer fights."

Tonteh, now sixteen years old, rubbed his eyes in bewilderment. Shiriken read the expression in the young man's eyes and shook his head.

"So far you have learned how to handle weapons. In any army you would be one of the outstanding men. But you can never fight in an army. You must always fight alone, and you will face many opponents. For you there will be no resting place. An ordinary soldier can seek shelter behind his army's defences. There will always be someone to protect the camp while he recovers his strenght. When you are hunted, there is no safe bed. You must be able to fight just as well when you are weary."

That day Tonteh trained longer and harder than usual. The sun burned above him, but Shiriken would not let him rest. His dry throat yearned for water, but Shiriken would not let allow him to taste a single drop. His breath came in hoarse gasps as he felled one imaginary opponent after the other.

Late in the afternoon the world around him grew dim. His field of vision narrowed until he could see only what was directly in front of him. He staggered round in circles before dropping in a heap.

Each day Tonteh trained until he fainted. When he regained consciousness he dragged himself back to camp where he ate and slaked his thirst. All day long he though of the blessed sleep to come when the sun set.

One day he was brought round by Shiriken's throwing cold water in his face.

"Anyonce can seek refuge in sleep. Anyone can faint. Except you. You may never faint. Tomorrow you will train harder, but you will not faint."

The circle of imaginary opponents were under the command of Shiriken. When one fell, Shiriken summoned a replacement and armed him with sword, spear or axe. In the end Tonteh looked upon his imaginary opponents as a merciless giant with a thousand arms that never grew tired.

He punched, kicked and butted the air. He rolled about in the sand and sprang up like a cat. He threw small knives at wooden targets Shiriken placed around him. Always the whirring sound of the staff, always the sound of short, quick breathing, always the pumping of arms and legs.

Sweat poured from his skin. Hair swung about his face like lengths of soaked rope. The wide trousers hung heavy with sweat about his ankles. The skin of his upper body turned from golden bronze to a fiery red. Dark blue patches began to appear, until finally his entire chest and back was blue.

Tonteh had trouble keeping his balance. His legs gave way under him, and time and again he had to force his knees straight. His movements grew more and more weary. He stumbled back and forth, shaking his head. He tried to let go of the staff, but his fists refused to reliquish their hold on the wood. He looked around in confusion, and his eyes met the inscrutable face of Shiriken.

His upper body began to tremble. He collapsed, his arms and legs shaking, saliva dribbling from his mouth. Still he kept his eyes open. They stared up at Shiriken. The harsh rasp of his breathing was the only sound that broke the silence.

"Sleep now," said Shiriken.

Tonteh curled up and slept as a baby sleeps. Shiriken bent over him and opened the white fingers that still clutched round the oak staff. With his one arm he lifted the young man and carried him on his shoulder back to camp. There he covered him with blankets. He folded his legs under himself and began to talk to Tonteh. He spoke for a long time, his voice clear and distinct. There was no need now for him to lower his voice. Tonteh would not wake anyway.

Tonteh and Shiriken looked at each other. The onearmed man's hair was streaked with silver, his forehead was deeply wrinkled, and there were more crow feet visible at the corners of his eyes. A smile played somewhere deep inside the brown, almond eyes, but the dry, pale face was expressionless.

Tonteh at seventeen was young in terms of summers and winters, but his features were those of an experienced warrior. He wore his long, raven-black hair in a tight knot at the neck. The powerful cheekbones, the hollow cheeks and thin lips were chiselled in stone. His face had become leaner, making it seem as though the black eyes and the aquiline nose had grown more than the rest of the face. He rarely glanced to the side, and never blinked.

Though he was not tall, his lean body gave an impression of height. The thin muscles were streched tight and hard across the bones. The shoulders were broader, the legs longer since he came to the Silver Mountain, but his movements were never clumsy. His feet hugged the ground as he walked, and he made no unnecessary moves.

On his upper body he wore a grey felt jacket with wide arms, the two halves held together by a crude leather belt around his waist. His trousers were made of the same grey felt, and the wide legs hung loose, like skirts, almost trailing along the ground.

A sudden gesture of Shiriken's hand, and a shu came shistling through the air towards Tonteh. Without taking his gaze from the brown, almond eyes Tonteh moved his oak staff, and the little knife cracked against the wood.

One end of the staff moved towards the right side of Shiriken's neck, and the onearmed man lifted his arm in a parry. The staff was withdrawn, and now the other end whipped towardws the left thigh. Shiriken took two rapid steps backwards, but Tonteh followed like a whirlwind.

Blows and kicks rained over the onearmed man. By weakening each separate part of the body in turn Tonteh would eventually triumph over the older man. Sometimes he moved to avoid a kick or a pundh, otherwise he kept up a continous advance.

He feinted, and Shiriken lifted his arm. At once Tonteh's staff swept down and hooked up one of his feet. A swishing kick to the ribs sent onearmed tumbling to the dust. He rolled over and tried to regain his feet, but each time Tonteh swept the feet from under his teacher.

Finally Shiriken lay still. His great almond eyes looked gravely at Tonteh, and he rose slowly to his feet.

"You have trained well," said Shiriken. "You have trained harder than I would have thought you capable of."

"Thank you," replied Tonteh, inclining his head slightly forward.

"You have trained well," Shiriken said again, and for once a warm, broad smile lit his features. "In another year you will be the most dangerous of all men."

Tonteh smiled back sheepishly. His face burned. It was so rare for him to hear praise that now he lapped up Shiriken's words as though they had been ice-cold water.

"Do not trust my smile," Shiriken said.


The onearmed man held out his hand, showing the sand he had grabbed as he rolled on the ground.

"A smile can kill, and a grain of sand in the eye can hide a whole mountain. Were I to throw this sand in your face, I would win, even if you are stronger and faster than me. I meant what I said just now, but you must not rely so completely on your skills with weapons. Expect attack from all quarters. An enemy will often make it his business to be your friend, and then not all the speed and strength in the world will be able to defend you," said Shiriken. His smile faded.

"But the opposite is also true. Befriend your enemy. If you are unable to avoid trouble, don't at fall into a crouch like a raging ape. Smile and walk easy, that will give you the time you need. If you have to raise your arms and crouch low before attacking you will warn your enemy."

The next day Shiriken decided that Tonteh would not train.

"Do you remember what I said the first time you lifted the staff?"

"That one day I would learn how to touch the wings of a bird with it," Tonteh replied.

"Are you able to do that now?"

Tonteh looked around and spotted a couple of dust grey sparrows fluttering among the thorn bushes. He lifted his staff across his chest, ready to strike, and glided towards the birds. But the sparrows flew away before he had half closed the gap.

"Give me the staff," Shiriken said.

Tonteh did as he was told.

Shiriken folded his legs and sat on the ground with the staff across his lap.

"Make room in your head for Silver Mountain," he said. "You will always be able to return here in your thoughts. Don't be influenced by your emotions when you walk among stranger. Even if you hate someone, that person may still be of some use to you. Freeze hatred, freeze anger. Don't waste your energy on revenge. Instead let your thoughts return to the Silver Mountain."

And then he just breathed with half closed eyes, seemingly lost to the world. After a while one of the dusty sparrows fluttered out from the thorn bushes and landed on the oaken staff. Shiriken opened his eyes and stared at it. Then he lashed out with his hand, but the bird beat its wings and was gone.

"Did you see the fear in the bird?"

Tonteh nodded.

"What do you fear most of all?"

"I fear nothing at all," replied Tonteh, believing he spoke the truth.

"You fear neither pain, great heights, water nor darkness. You fear no man and no beast. I have never seen fear in you," said Shiriken. "But fear is what will save you later, when you go the places where no one else will go. Then the fear will come. And then it will be the friend that will carry you to safety. When the fear is gone, so is the wish to live."

Shiriken had been away for some days. He had disappeared before, but always returned at the agreed time. Now there was no sign of the onearmed man.

Towards evening Tonteh began to worry for his teacher. He shivered through the night, and did not sleep. When the first rays of the sun showed above the horizon Tonteh began running in a wide circle around Silver Mountain. He ran all day, and saw no sign of human life.

Next day he ran in an even greater circle, but still found no trace of Shiriken. He felt a claw clutching his stomach and slowly twisting his guts. The world shrank until it seemed like a pale, milky egg around him, and he lost the ability to think clearly.

For the next ten days he did nothing but search for Shiriken, certain that someone must have harmed him. He ran in circles until he began to stagger. His chest rose and fell like a bellows, and he wasted must of his effort in breathing. He hardly ate, taking time only to drink a little water. At night he shivered, unable to sleep.

He had to make all decisions himself. There was no-one but himself to rely on. For the first time in his life he was completely alone. Finally he was able to put a name on the deepest fear of all.

Nobody has harmed Shiriken, Tonteh realized. This was his last lesson to me. And the one I paid the dearest price for.

Tonteh remained at Silver Mountain for a further year. Shiriken did not come back, nor did he see another human being. But he spoke most of the tribal languages, and had long talks with himself. He had a knowledge of all lands and every tribe, and was able to draw a crude map of the Eastern and Western Quarters, of the Angoro Jungle in the south and the Snowland in the north, of Alania, the Middle Kingdom, with Shimoshe, the Town of the Dead, and the forests near Rotharin.

Though he had never seen a single imperial soldier, he knew how the Emperor's army was organized, the weapons they used, and where the largest garrisons were situated. He even mastered the art of runes, the powerful symbols that could send messages through time to others skilled in the art.

Tonteh had acquired all the knowledge that Shiriken possessed, even those parts of it that he had not understood at first hearing. Alone he rehearsed the lessons over and over, until they became a part of himself. Tonteh called to mind every speech Shiriken had made, turning them sideways and upside down, as though they were beautiful jewels that must be viewed from every angle before the whole could be appreciated. Sometimes it seemed to Tonteh that he could hear Shiriken's voice among a choir of long dead warriors, all teaching him the same lesson. Yet when he looked around he still found himself alone.

The sun spilled across a beautiful spring day. Tonteh studied the mountain above him, committing to memory every stone and every outcrop. Shoots appeared on the tough green bushes which clung to cracks in the mountain sides. Higher up there were still patches of snow and ice, but clear streams trickled down the grey slopes. Before long the mountain would again return to dust and dryness.

Make room in your mind for Silver Mountain, a voice said in his mind. In your thoughts you can always return here.

Tonteh filled his mouth with water and set out running up the mountainside. He reached the top at the same time as the sun reached noon, and was down again in time to see the last rays of the sun paint the horizon red. With a shout he spat out the water. Then he curled up and slept on the bare stone ground.

At sunrise the next morning he headed south.