Sir Jude was a man who almost never got nervous, but he was nervous now.
Over the past decade and a half he had fought in close to a hundred battles and travelled to dozens of different worlds. He was used to speaking in front of hundreds of men. His life had been in danger more times than he could remember. He had been scared at times, of course he had; he would have been a fool not to be. But never had he felt like this. Never before had his conscience troubled him so.
Jude sat beneath an old beech tree that stood alone amongst a sea of bright green grass and wildflowers. His black stallion Midnight grazed a few feet away. Fifty yards away the grassland abruptly stopped and slate grey cliffs dropped a hundred feet to the ocean. It was a clear, calm day, with only one other person visible. A lone horseman was trotting along the trail of trampled grass that served for a path along the cliffside.
Jude rose to his feet as he tried to make out just who was approaching. He looked above him to find a kestrel perched amongst the lowest branches of the beech. ‘Kira,’ he called ‘go and see who the rider is.’ Immediately the kestrel took flight, flying straight towards the horseman. It circled him once and came back to Jude.
‘Lawrence,’ Kira said, and settled back on her branch.
Jude breathed what he felt should be a sigh of relief. Lawrence was one of the three men he had agreed to meet here. And yet still his heart was pounding and his mouth was dry. ‘Good day Lawrence,’ Jude called out, trying to sound confident.
Lawrence dismounted from his horse and nodded anxiously. ‘Good day,’ he mumbled. Lawrence’s receeding hair and weak features were the polar opposite to Jude’s traditionally handsome good looks. Neither could their characters have been any more different. Jude was a natural born leader, and courted publicity wherever he went. Lawrence kept himself out of the public eye, and few people outside of the gateways project would have guessed just what an important role he played. But Lawrence was reliable and just as indespensible to the project as Jude was, tirelessly collecting information on the new worlds visited and organising new journeys through the gateways.
‘You know what this is about?’ Jude asked him.
‘I can guess,’ Lawrence said cautiously.
‘You have dreams from Ma’hu too?’
Lawrence nodded. ‘I have them too.’
Two more riders were approaching side by side. It was not long before Jude recognised them both. One was Sir Oliver Mowbray, an aging knight who had stood alongside Jude at several battles and had accompanied him on even more travels through the gateways. The other was Lief Wykeham, a scrawny man with sharp features who had been the unofficial assassin of the previous King Ulric. If there was a job that needed doing that no one else was comfortable with, it was Lief who would be the one willing to do it. Or so Jude had always heard, Lief himself was naturally cagey about any details of what his work entailed. Secrecy and moral flexibility, Jude mused, two traits that would be much needed for the work that was to come.
Jude greeted in each man as they dismounted. ‘A strange place to meet,’ Oliver said ‘half a days ride from Elador. Was there not a room in the castle we could meet in?’
‘It wouldn’t feel right to meet in the castle, not for this.’
‘And so we meet miles away, like common conspiritors.’
‘Is that not what we are?’ Jude said. It felt wrong to say the words, and hearing them out loud finally made them real. Still, it was better to admit to it now than trying to talk around the fact. ‘You have both heard the words of Ma’hu, you know what this is about, right?’
All three men nodded.
‘And you still came.’
‘I had hoped to hear your own thoughts on what we heard,’ Oliver told him.
‘You will,’ said Jude, not eager to get onto that subject immediately. ‘First I wanted to talk about the new colonies. Lawrence and Sir Oliver, I belive you have both seen them with your own eyes.’
‘I have, they’re doing well.’ Oliver stressed the last word as though it surprised him.
‘Me too,’ Lawrence said. ‘There have been problems from the natives in two of them, especially the one in An’eh, but as for any sign of a sudden catastrophic event, nothing at all.’
Jude nodded as he heard this, remembering the previous attempts almost nine years ago when Ma’hu had first commanded for colonies to be built. The first attempts at colonisation were kept secret from all but those who were directly involved in setting up a new territory of Omundy. It was a good job they had been, for they were without exception complete and dismal failures. No sooner had the pioneers set the Omundy flag in the ground and began to lay the foundations for houses than disaster had befallen them, whether in the form of an earthquake, a flood or a mudslide that sprang seemingly from nowhere. Only a lucky few pioneers had made it back alive to report on just how badly their attempts had gone. The colonisation plans had been put on indefinite hold. Ma’hu appeared again to Jude in his dreams to assure him that he hadn’t done anything wrong, and that the time would come when the colonisation plans could go ahead once again.
It sounded like now was the time.
‘Good news,’ Jude said, ‘fantastic news. And you realise of course why we were successful this time?’
Lief raised a hand. ‘I don’t.’
‘The Arm of Ma’hu,’ Jude said enthusiastically ‘its outer appearance is of a silver box with curved edges. The patternings on them are beautiful, but it’s what’s inside that makes them so special.’
Lief seemed lost. ‘And we found these?’
‘We made them,’ Jude said proudly, ‘after first revieving the instructions from Ma’hu in dreams. I personally received some of these dreams myself. Robert did too, and then once we located the materials to do so we had some smiths in Elador make them. It happened just as before with the gateways.’
‘How do they work?’
‘I don’t know, no one truly does, but the important thing is they seem to be working. Wherever the Arm of Ma’hu is deployed we’ve had no problems from the environment.’
‘And we now have people from Bourn living on other worlds?’ Lief had known of the gateways for years, but Jude suspected he had been left out of the loop recently. King Ulric had always been rumoured not to be above bumping off his enemies silently, and so had provided employment for the likes of Lief. It was hard to imagine King Thomas resorting to such tactics.
‘There’s five colonies in all,’ Lawrence broke in, ‘with less than a hundred settlers in each one. As you can imagine, we had a hard time fin,ding volunteers, especially while the king still deems it necessary to keep news of the gateways secret.’
‘That can’t carry on for much longer,’ Jude said ‘not if we’re going to carry on expanding.’
‘And we’re doing that?’ Lief asked. Jude was left wondering just how much Ma’hu had revealed to Lief. Enough to get him here, but evidently not enough to have him fully understand what was going on.
‘Apparently so,’ Oliver said, ‘Ma’hu is insistent that we do so, and I know I am not the only one to hear him say so.’
‘And the king?’ What does he say to this?’
‘He listens to what his priests and sybils tell him, Jude answered. ‘So far he’s been willing to allow the colonisation to go ahead, but for how much longer? He doesn’t seem to have any great love for the project.’
‘Or to see its need,’ Oliver added. He looked around him at the open uninhabited grassland. ‘There’s plenty of room for expansion within Omundy itself.’
‘King Thomas has never been a fan of expansion,’ Lief agreed, ‘not like Ulric was.’ He said it wistfully, as if remembering better times.
‘Expanding the kingdom into other worlds will cost both money and lives,’ Oliver told him.
‘But it’s what Ma’hu wants,’ Jude said, ‘and it will be worth it. I don’t know if you’ve seen the visions I have of New Omundy…’
‘New Omundy,’ Oliver repeated ‘I did not realise the place had a name already.’
‘New Omundy,’ Lief said, trying the phrase out. He seemed to like it.
‘If these other worlds were uninhabited then I’d be all for it,’ Oliver said, ‘but they are not. King Thomas will not easily be convinced.’
‘Omundy was not empty when King Edward first claimed the land,’ Lief said. ‘People tend to forget that but it’s true. Show me a land in all of Bourn that was not stolen from someone else.’
‘Still, I doubt he will take kindly to the idea.’
‘And that is why we need an enemy.’
The other three men turned to look at Lief. Jude’s heart was pounding, but he knew the subject had to broken. He opened his mouth and forced out the words.
‘We need an enemy. We’ve all heard it, haven’t we? this is what Ma’hu wanted.’
‘I heard it,’ Oliver admitted, ‘I just didn’t know what you felt’.
‘I didn’t reach my decision easily. The truth is the first time I heard Ma’hu’s idea I was horrified too. When I first swore to serve both god and king I never dreamt that the two would ever be in conflict.’
Jude was telling the truth. When the request had first been heard one year before it had pushed the knight to the very limits of his sanity. Ma’hu had informed him that many of the inhabitants of Omundy were too weak minded to accept the challenge of pushing bravely into the new worlds. They would need an excuse to go, a catalyst that would get them up and fighting and ready to move into whatever new land Ma’hu had promised them. To do this they needed an enemy, one that would attack them first at home and then abroad. Since there was no such enemy that currently existed, Jude would have to enlist one. At first Jude was horrified - how could he possibly unleash a dangerous enemy on his own people? Had he heard the idea from anyone but Ma’hu he would have labelled it treason and wasted no time in taking off their head. But Ma’hu had been relentless in his asking, each night enquiring how his plans were going. The voice had never threatened him as Jude feared it would, but its sheer persistence and disappointed tone often left him waking more wearied than when he had gone to sleep.
Jude was torn like he had never been before. On one hand he was fervently caught up in Ma’hu’s dream of a grand new empire for Omundy and desperately wanted to please him. On the other he hated the idea of carrying out a plan that would see the deaths of so many innocent people. Neither could he stand the idea of keeping his plans secret from those around him, especially the royal family to whom he had pledged allegiance. Jude had taken to spending as much time alone as possible, often taking walks through deserted stretches of countryside and cliff tops to have time by himself to think. Gradually but surely he came round to Ma’hu’s idea. After all, Ma’hu was the creator, and if Jude found himself disagreeing, it must be he that was in the wrong. An empire that belonged to Omundy, one that spanned world after world, was a glorious dream, and he had finally come to believe the end justified the means.
But would his companions feel the same? Ma’hu had given him the names of these three men as people he had marked as being favourable towards the plan, but how could he know for sure? Lawrence leaned back against the beech tree, silently thinking it over. It was impossible to read his mind. Lief seemed the most enthusiastic of the three, but Jude was unwilling to trust him easily. He may seem on their side now but Jude wouldn’t put it past him to sell them all out as traitors the instance he returned to the castle. Sir Oliver was an honest man, and a friend of Jude’s. Right now he seemed the most reluctant of the three.
‘I’ve met plenty of enemies,’ said Oliver, ‘but I never dreamt that I’d need one.’
‘But haven’t we all dreamt that?’ Jude corrected him, ‘isn’t that why the four of us are meeting here today? A new enemy in our own world and then in others is the only way we’re going to motivate the people to move.’
‘This enemy?’ Oliver asked, ‘did you have one in mind?’
‘Orcs,’ Lief said, ‘everyone hates orcs.’
Jude was shaking his head. ‘A century ago maybe, but for too long and too hard have we fought against the orcs. They’re a shadow of the force they once were. They’ve suffered too many defeats to stand like they once did.’
‘That’s true,’ Oliver said. Jude and Oliver had fought alongside one another on several campaigns against the orcs. Never had they imagined that there would one day come a time when they needed them.
‘There’s not an enemy strong or savage enough in all of Bourn for what we need. So we look elsewhere.’
Lief was fascinated. ‘An enemy from one of these other worlds?’
At this Jude delved into a satchel he had bought, bringing out several scrolls. ‘I have some ideas.’
Lief took one of the scrolls and sat down in the grass. Jude sat next to him, followed by Lawrence. Oliver remained standing, and Jude noticed his sword still hung from his side.
Lief was enthusiastically scanning the scroll, with all it’s descriptions of some of the most aggressive races to have been discovered by Omundy’s explorers. ‘So many choices,’ he said. He showed one of the drawings to Jude. ‘The Zekil people, they sound fierce!’
‘They are,’ said Jude, ‘though whether they’ll be willing to cooperate is something that remains to be seen.’
Lawrence was studying one of the scrolls. As was his character, he spoke only after he had thought things through. ‘Arranging an audience with one of these races is going to be difficult. We need a people with a strong allegiance to a particularly warlike leader. We also need to limit the number of people amongst our enemy who know of what they’d been enlisted for.’
‘The smaller the number of people who know on both sides of the war the better,’ said Jude.
Lawrence looked around him. ‘Four of us on this side.’
‘Five of us with Kira,’ Jude said, nodding up to the tree, ‘and we’ll need to enlist more as we go.’ Jude noticed Oliver grimace at his inclusion. So far he showed no indication of being on their side. But both Lief and Lawrence had already began to plan alongside him. Whatever Ma’hu had told these two, it had worked.
‘The more people the more risk,’ Lawrence said, ‘can we really hope to keep this secret forever?’
Lawrence was using ‘we’ already. Jude felt he could afford himself to relx a little, at least with him. ‘Ma’hu will deal with those who wish to expose us.’
Lawrence looked around nervously as if expecting to see soldiers galloping on their way to arrest them already. ‘I hope so. I might be a believer but I’m not a martyr, I have no wish to find my head on a block for Ma’hu’s plans.’
‘You won’t,’ Jude said, trying to sound more confident than he truly was.
Lief was still looking through the scrolls and held up an illustration of an insectlike creature. ‘What about these people, the Kralu..ve…spians?’
‘I’d like to fight an enemy I can pronounce,’ Oliver said. Jude looked to him hopefully. Did this mean he was now considering joining them?
‘They’re fierce for sure’ Jude said, ‘but their level of technology greatly exceeds our own. Our armies would be burnt to cinders before they got anywhere near them. We need a good fight, but ultimately we need to win.’
Lief pointed out an illustration of an orclike being. ‘These?’
‘Would they work?’
‘We have no way of communicating with them. Whatever language they speak, it isn’t ours.’
Lawrence continued studying the scrolls before pointing out a new creature. An ugly corpselike being with legs that bent backwards like a bird. ‘What do you call that?’
‘That,’ said Jude as the memory came flooding back to him, ‘is a vekling.’
‘It looks vicious.’ The illustration had been drawn by someone on a later visit to An’eh than the one Jude had originally led. All he remembered of the vekling was fleeting glimpses of ugly humanoid fugures at the tops of the cliffs.
‘What do they fight with?’
An image of a man pierced by a jagged spear went through his mind. ‘Spears.’
‘Nothing we couldn’t overcome?’
‘I wouldn’t count on it.’
‘Do you think they might be worth speaking too?’
‘If you could get close enough to them without them killing you, then maybe.’
Lawrence thought for a bit longer before asking ‘just how are our new enemy going to travel from world to world anyway?’
‘We’ll allow them use of the gateways, limited use only, they’ll be locked in place so they can’t travel anywhere we don’t want them too.’
‘That’s going to be complicated, we’ll need to enlist more people, and find valid excuses for the disappearance of some gateways…’
‘Difficult but not impossible. Ma’hu is with us. As I hope are all of you.’
Silence descended on them. Jude could have cringed. He had asked the question too soon, he knew it.
Lief was the first to talk. ‘I’ve done some bad things for the good of the kingdom but this…this beats them all.’
Jude waited anxiously for his next words.
‘But my soul is in need of some redemption and Ma’hu’s the only one who can provide it. What Ma’hu asks for, Ma’hu gets.’
Jude felt the pounding of his heart slow just a little. Lawrence took longer before speaking. ‘I never used to be a religious man. I didn’t use to speak to god, but it seems he wants to speak to me. I’d be a fool not to be on his side.’
Sir Jude looked up at Kira. She remained perched in the tree, looking down on them. She must have seen and heard everything, and could have taken flight and flown straight to the castle if she didn’t like it. In her silence had become a fellow conspirator.
Only Sir Oliver remained. All eyes were fixed on him. Finally he said ‘I need more time to think this through.’
Jude was suddenly even more anxious than he had been originally. ‘More time? What’s to think through?’
Oliver had a hand on his saddle. ‘This doesn’t feel right Jude, even with Ma’hu’s backing.’ He pulled himself onto his horse.
‘Stay with us,’ Jude said, the desperation creeping into his voice, ‘we should talk this through.’
But Oliver was already trotting away. Lief was at Jude’s side. ‘You know what he’s going to do as soon as he gets back to Elador? He’s going straight to the castle to report all three of us to the king.’
Jude didn’t like to admit it, but his gut told him it was true.
‘We should chase him,’ Lief said.
‘And do what?’ Jude said sharply.
‘Whatever needs to be done.’
Jude cursed loudly and then climbed up onto Midnight. He dug his heels in and the horse moved on. A hundred yards away Oliver was moving away at full gallop. Kira was already in front of Jude, flying straight after Oliver. Jude leaned forwards as Midnight moved into a gallop. He was trying to work out what he would do when he caught up with Oliver. He would try to get him to slow, to bring him round to his side. But if that didn’t work? Jude and Oliver had fought alongside eachother, saved eachothers lives. Could Jude really bring himself to murder to protect his schemes?
Then again, Jude might not even have the chance to find out. Oliver was a keen rider and he was keeping the distance between them. If anything he was actually drawing away. The wind buffeted Jude as he rode. It was a strong breeze that swept from the land out into the ocean. It took a few seconds for Jude to realise the significance of this. Just moments before there had been nothing but the gentlest of breezes that rippled the grass, and the wind almost always blew in from the sea, not out to it. The breeze grew stronger. Ahead of him Jude saw Kira struggling in the wind, being blown out over the cliffs edge. Up ahead the wind must have been even stronger, for it flattened and tore at the grass. Oliver’s horse slowed, slipping and stumbling towards the edge of the cliff. It fell onto itsside, Oliver spilling from the saddle. Jude slowed Midnight, holding his arm against the wind. He could just make out Oliver trying to get to his feet, before he stumbled, was rolled through the grass at the cliffs edge, and fell.
Even quicker than it had begun, the wind died away. Jude covered the rest of the ground to Oliver’s horse at a trot. He dismounted when he reached the spot where Oliver had been swept from. Kira had now recovered and was hovering level with the cliff top.
‘Do you see him?’ shouted Jude.
Jude crept as close as he dared to the edge of the cliff. A hundred feet down he saw Oliver, just a body floating in the surf, the water around him tinted red. A wave of emotions flooded through him; sadness, relief but most of all, guilt.
Lief slowed his horse to a walk as he approached Jude. ‘What happened to him?’
‘Ma’hu,’ Jude said grimly, ‘Ma’hu watching out for us.’ The wind had saved Jude from having to confront his old comrade himself. He knew he should be grateful to Ma’hu for what had happened, but he couldn’t feel it, not just yet.
‘Looks like I picked the right side,’ said Lief.
‘You did,’ Jude replied, still watching the body rising and falling with the waves. He turned away sadly. Jude climbed back onto Midnight and took the reins of Olivers old horse. Kira descended and perched on Jude’s shoulder. The two men, three horses and one bird began a slow walk back to the beech tree where Lawrence and the scrolls awaited. There were plans to be made.