Keefer-Papa of the Runman Order
Gloom had wreathed the heart of Kalamite, unrelenting since the disturbance. Aiy, no damage done. Yet . . . what could have been . . . He could not proceed with that thought. His guts clenched, his sinews tightened; a barrier formed in his brain. He tried to pray. But his prayers were broken by the question repeating, as if to taunt him – he who was Kalamite, Keefer-Papa of the Runman Order – What if I had not been there? Aiy. Sweat, red-stained oozed from him.
He knew who the intruder was; absent the next day from the barracks and not appeared since. And feeble the attempts to recover him; suspected of joining the exiled Mallen. Kalamite would have riddled the deserter’s hamlet, would have tortured the family. But not Dryastil Hadd, the deserter’s keefer – too respectful of Lafard Legere whose holdings, by way of hamlet and hindlings, they were.
Someone must pay for this failing.
For these past three weeks Kalamite’s runmen had been searching for what they had previously missed. He doubted any would want to find it: evidence of their own shortcoming; none knowing yet what the punishment. Aiy, let them tremble. For somewhere amongst their Event Maps were signs that said of this very disturbance. It would have been foretold. Forewarned, it would not have happened.
Now Sparra Runman had come to disturb him, panting his way down the stairs, down and round, down and round, as if he were old. Had he first raced up the nine flights of ladders? Had he sprinted across the swaying walkway? That, perhaps, would explain it. Kalamite had been aware of his presence since he heard the slam of the high-set door. He had waited, and in waiting grown agitated. How could he pray in such turbulence. It was a relief to sit back on his heels as the runman approached him.
Aiya, his coat! The screech of that yellow – not even Wood Tower’s dim light could dampen its shout. It raked Kalamite’s spine. His red-stained lips rose in disdain.
“Heli’s day, Papa Hadd,” Sparra said in a voice not quite as bright as his offending garment.
“Nix! Without sealing this flaw there is no Heli to laud.” With both hands closed around his staff Kalamite heaved himself up.
Sparra bowed his head. “As you say, Papa Hadd. But I bring you news.”
Deuce! The man says true. For Kalamite had spied the vellum tube clutched in the runman’s hands. He saw too how those hands did tremble, as revealing as any malefic planet. Kalamite nodded – aiy, you know it, Sparra Runman; permanent sleep-time for you. Kalamite held out his hand. “And this is the misread event?”
“Um, no, Papa Hadd. It is an event yet to come.”
Kalamite sniffed. Ought he to be pleased; had it taken this . . . disturbance . . . for the sprats to find their little sharp toes. “Today’s map, then?”
“Um, well, actually no, Papa Hadd. It was drawn during the Rainmakers.”
“Ale-lai and here we are in the Fishes. So it’s another event of which I’m not told. You idle bungling bereft drip-head.”
Kalamite took the vellum close to the window – here it was set twelve foot deep in the wall – before he unrolled the wafer-thin sheet. He stared, disbelieving – not at the map but the projections upon it. He felt for a moment dizzy. Darkness enfolded him. In the darkness he saw planets collide. Aiya, his precious lover, his mother, his queen, how would she survive it, all come to an end. He felt himself sink in a deep pit.
Nix! He puffed and gasped and fought to be calm in the eyes of the sprat beside him. And how had they overlooked this? Yikes! By Verth’s baneful feet, even a child could have seen it just by the looking. Loh! He tapped on the vellum. The moons were aligning, there was to be a conjunction. See! Loh! In precise declination! For this he would have his sprats dead and roasted alive. Yet neither had he seen it.
Aye, and why must I bark when I’ve tattageese around me?
It was not rare for the moons to conjoin. Two together, aiy – but also the third? And regularly did each moon spread her cloak over Heli. But for the three to do so together . . . had it happened before, in this precise alignment? Hah! It would be recorded in the registers. Deuce and verily, what disasters might this portend?
He examined closer the circular map with its figures and glyphs listed beside it. Svara and Murag conjunct – a mere four days before that once-in-a-unicorn’s-lifetime eclipse. And in the same duodecimanse! Aiya, boiling guts, but it couldn’t be so. Yet there it was. And there was more.
For twenty days preceding this calamity Verth would walk back upon himself – Deuce and Dizpeter, wasn’t that always the most perilous time. Then, on the very day of the eclipse – on that very same day – the Varlet Verth would reach his station. Never before had Kalamite seen such portentous activity. And when was this to be?
Now here was relief, though slight. It was not to be for some thirty-one weeks.
He leaned again on his staff, now peering through the pierced-stone grille. O Mother, O Lover, my queen, what does it mean?
~ ~ ~
The batteries to power the required Mathon-lamps were not only cumbersome but not easily afforded and not everlasting, and since the runmen were few Kalamite decided three lamps would do. He waited for them to arrive at this most hallowed of chambers for an unscheduled early morning meeting.
The heavy carved door thwacked as each runman entered. The squat legs of the stools scraped as each runman sat. Kalamite winced. Yet from their noises he knew their number without opening his eyes. Six. Where was the seventh? Seven was the number of sprats in his charge. He sent Ffika Runman to waken the sleeper.
Ffika returned alone, face ashen. ”Papa Hadd, Sparra Runman is dead.”
Kalamite allowed the heavy silence to stretch . . . until it all but screamed to be broken. Ffika shifted his weight from toes to heel, from inner to outer.
“Aiya, you say, Ffika, verily, that Sparra Runman is dead? But such is impossible. Did the maps tell us of it? Sparra is young. Indeed, brashly young. It will be but an ailment. Honning, go fetch the salfworker. At this hour, he will be at Schlepan House.”
Honning neither argued nor lingered.
“But, Papa Hadd,” Ffika Runman persisted, “Sparra is blue and rigid and is not breathing. He is dead. And I found this.” He held up a sack, heavy and bulging with something the weight and the size of a cat.
Kalamite hesitated. He would not take it. He covered his nose with a rag before gesturing for Ffika to open it. He peered in. And drew back before speaking again.
“You found it? Where? Where did you find it?”
“Tucked under his pillow, Papa Hadd.”
Long matted ropes of red-stained hair tangled around Kalamite’s head as slowly he shook it. “Aiya, have I not told you – all of you, times without number. Stup strikes dead those who keep these accursed amphibs. Runmen – my sprats – you know this. A harmless soft and furry bank-bear? Aiy, until it is dead. And now it has taken Sparra Runman with it. Now learn by it. For now you are six, and the task becomes more burdensome for you.”
He drew for them the relevant map upon the wall, making no mention that Sparra had seen what these others had missed. He would extend to them the Grace of Dizpeter and withhold the chiding they ought to endure. He progressed the map lest, inept and lazy, there lorel-headed sprats were unable. He shew them the weeks of Verth’s backtracking, and his return; the days of the triple eclipse and the moment of the Svara-Murag conjunction.
“Holla! We are yet in the Fishes weeks, we have till the Witan’s – count their number and rejoice. But be not the sloth. Even now Murag causes us problems with his reverses – witness Sparra’s untimely death. But it is the Varlet Verth we most must fear. At the very moment that Murag, again forward stepping, moves into the Witan’s manse, so then does the Varlet start his backtracking. By my calculations that ought to begin in the Maiden’s third week. Count them, the weeks, and rejoice, but be not the slug. For before it begins we must learn the nature of this portended calamity. And that is your task. And then to allay it as far as we’re able . . . aiya, to fully forestall it an’ we can.”
He looked across the chamber to its far wall where ninety or so holha-grass stalks were stacked. Each stalk contained an Event Register, each register covered approximately ten Helian years. Many remained untouched since, anciently, they had been rolled and stored. Now likely all ninety would need be disturbed.
“As any sprat of First Taking knows, no map is unique; they endlessly repeat with their blessings and calamities. And all are recorded in those registers. You will search through them all, every one. Read every entry in every register ever stored there. And you will find these exact same events and note their outcomes.
“Svara, denoting the Runman Order but also Lecheni citadel.
“Verth, which we might take to denote the Two Boars, thus also Breken Lafard-Legere.
“The moons, the Shore woman – and what halt and wilder is already there?
“But this Murag, this Murag, is less clear. Is it here denoting Mikel Lafard-Awis? Or could it be Citadel Tesecret? Or is it something other as yet unsought?”
“With respect, Papa Hadd,” Ffika Runman dared. “But surely not yon Citadel Tesecret. It’s but two years since Ramarik Lafard launched an attack.”
“And you frequent the Tesecret Witan?” Kalamite asked, an eyebrow arched. “Two years of paying tribute is frequently two years too much.”
“But the game—”
“Has it’s rules, and rules too often are broken. Now hie to your work. I want my sprats to give me answers, not jaw.”
~ ~ ~