The sun was high in the sky when Mara’Uto rode out of the forest and she understood why Shime’Kar said she would not miss Atalan. The city built of white rock glistened on the horizon with such intensity that it was almost blinding to her eyes after being under the shading branches of the trees for so long. She squinted and turned the horse toward her destination.
As she rode, the heat of the sun combined with the dust kicked up from the road by the horse’s hooves and warm breeze began to cause her scaly skin to dry out faster than usual. She urged the horse to go faster but it did little to help the situation. Without the wet blanket, her skin started to crack and her fins were becoming stiff. She leaned forward and rested her head against the horse’s neck. “Just keep going,” she murmured, and closed her eyes to keep them from drying out.
Captain Ishlemen watched from the gate at the end of the causeway leading to Atalan as a horse approached along the road from the northwest. A plume of smoke rose into the sky even further in the distance, and rumors were circulating throughout Atalan that it was raising from Therazan where the Red Exemplars had made their base. He examined the approaching horse and rider. Something didn’t quite look normal but he couldn’t figure it out from such a distance. The soldiers under his command noticed it as well.
“That rider looks a bit small,” one of the other soldiers suggested. “The feet look strange too.”
“Then it is no ordinary rider,” Captain Ishlemen replied. He pointed at two of the others. “You two, come with me. We will apprehend them before they reach the gate.” He picked up his spear and led the other two soldiers a short bit down the road.
Mara’Uto was half-asleep from the combined effects of the heat, dust, and the monotonous rhythm of the moving horse despite the slowing pace, and did not know she was so close to Atalan. The horse suddenly turned and stopped walking, as if being pulled. “Stop!” someone yelled, jolting her from her near slumber. She lost her grip on the animal and began to slide off the side, but strong arms caught her. She opened her eyes and looked into the face of the soldier holding her. “I am Captain Ishlemen. Welcome to Atalan, the light shining across the world,” he greeted. “It is strange for a girl to be riding a horse; even stranger for that girl to be of the Awa, and stranger still for that Awa girl to be riding from inland instead of the sea. There will be many questions asked about your coming.”
“Water,” Mara’Uto choked out, closing her eyes again. “I need water and Shime’Kar needs help.”
Captain Ishlemen started carrying her toward the gate and one of the other soldiers led the horse behind them. “Who is Shime’Kar?” he asked.
Mara’Uto muttered her response but Captain Ishlemen could only make out bits and pieces. “Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar,” “forest by the river,” “attacked,” “can’t move,” “soldiers of darkness,” “Gerzh,” “army coming.”
At the gate, Captain Ishlemen turned to the other soldiers. “Gotpod, take the horse to the palace and tell the Great King that an Awa girl rode it from the direction of Therazan. Right now, she is too weak to say much, but she mentioned the soldiers of darkness, the Dark Wizard Gerzh, and a coming army. Specifically point out the Red Exemplar sword and armband tied to the harness. Also, tell the Supreme Mistress that one of her members may be injured somewhere in the forest along the Torudo River and that they should look into it. I am sure they would like to hear from the girl herself, but she is in desperate need of water so I am taking her to the shore.”
Gotpod nodded, and while the Captain carried the Awa girl down to the shore beside the causeway, Gotpod took the reins and led the horse along the causeway to Atalan. He walked swiftly, ignoring the people fishing over the side and trying to sell their catch. Once on the island, he went straight to the palace, not the largest structure of the city, but one of the most unique. The throne room was rectangular with the north and south ends open. In the center was the throne. To the sides were pillars and several pits filled with either water or fire depending on the season. Four large banners hung open at the two open ends and could be opened or closed to keep in the warmth or to let in the cooling breeze.
The Palace Guard stopped him at the steps leading up to the throne room. “You cannot bring a horse into the palace,” one of them announced.
“It really is important,” Gotpod replied. “I need to speak with the Great King and the Supreme Mistress. I bring a message from Therazan.”
“You brought a horse, not a messenger,” the guard laughed, “but follow me, we will see if you can make a horse of the Red Exemplars speak when even the horses of the Great King are mute.” The guard took the reins from Gotpod and noticed the sword and armband. “Forgive my teasing,” he said. “I should have realized not all messages are spoken.”
Gotpod followed beside the guard as they walked up the steps. “There is also a verbal message,” he said, “but the messenger could barely speak and needed immediate care so I have brought it.”
The guard’s eyes widened. “Things must be bad if Therazan is burning and the Red Exemplars are asking for help!”
“It is worse than that,” Gotpod replied, “but we won’t know just how worse until the messenger is well enough to speak.”
The Great King, Felarikam, was sitting at a table with the Prince, Belmet II, and his advisors pouring over maps and manuscripts when the two soldiers with the horse stepped past the white curtains and into the throne room. The echoing staccato of the horse’s hooves on the white rock floor instantly made the two soldiers the center of attention as everyone in the room turned to look at them. They bowed as the King stood up. “This is a place of regal state, not a horse barn,” the King scolded. “Why have you brought this animal before me?”
“It was ridden from Therazan,” Gotpod answered, turning the horse so the King could see the sword and armband of the Red Exemplars. “The rider spoke of soldiers of darkness, the Dark Wizard Gerzh, and a coming army.” He glanced around the room. “She also mentioned the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar and that a woman who may be one of their members was injured along the Torudo River and needed help. The Supreme Mistress needs to be notified.”
“Who is this ‘she’ you mention?” one of the advisors asked. “Everyone knows there are no women among the Red Exemplars.”
“The horse came from Therazan,” Gotpod explained, “but it was ridden by an Awa girl. I would have brought her with me but she badly needed water and could barely speak.”
For a moment, the room was silent as they pondered the information. Finally the King spoke. “How an Awa girl happened to be so far inland I cannot say, but the sword and armband not worn by a Red Exemplar can only mean he is dead and that the smoke of Therazan rises as a witness to his death.”
“No single man could defeat a Red Exemplar,” another of the advisors spoke.
The King slammed his fist on the table. “No, it would take an overwhelming force to defeat even a single Red Exemplar, let alone all fifty of them. If the Dark Wizard already has the numbers to torch Therazan in the heart of Tanarad, then he is making a move on Atalan.”
One of the advisors stood up and bowed to the King. “I will assemble as much of the army as I can on such short notice.” He turned and left down a side corridor.
The Prince looked at the King. “Father, if the Awa girl mentioned someone between here and Therazan needing help, then I do not think she rode the whole way alone. It is possible that this person could have brought her inland from the coast.” He pulled a map closer to him. “If we go from here straight to Therazan and then continue in that direction to the coast, they would have come all the way from Itragoni.”
“I still do not know why bring an Awa girl, but I think the Prince is on to something,” an advisor agreed. “If the Dark Wizard is bringing an army across Tanarad to Atalan, then whoever rode with the girl was racing the enemy to warn us of the coming attack.”
“The whole story sounds senseless to me,” interrupted one of the advisors. “Some woman rides the whole way across Tanarad to warn of a coming war. In the past, the deathbirds have always been spotted before battles and provided plenty of warning, but where are they now? None have been seen flying in Tanarad for quite some time. Not only that, but this woman brings with her an Awa girl who would be much better off staying in the sea where she belongs. Seriously, why would someone bring a fish out of water unless meaning ill intent?”
King Felarikam cleared his throat. “The sword and armband of the Red Exemplars is real as is the smoke rising from their base. I understand the lack of deathbirds, but some evil treachery may have stopped their coming.” He neatened his pile of manuscripts. “The method may be unusual, but the warning has come and the girl may be able to tell us more. Where is she now?”
“She is with Captain Ishlemen at the causeway gate,” Gotpod replied.
“Then return to the gate,” King Felarikam ordered. “Tell Captain Ishlemen to give the girl anything she needs, food, water, clothing, medical treatment, and that I will be coming there to talk with her myself.” Gotpod bowed and allowed the palace guard to lead himself and the horse from the throne room. The King turned to one of the advisors. “Go tell Supreme Mistress Ikarla’Yol to take time from reading her tomes and meet me at the gate with a few of her underlings.” He then turned toward the Prince and handed him a map of the city and surrounding countryside. “Belmet, get with Commander Mehel and put together a strategy to defend against this attack coming from the direction of Therazan. Count on having soldiers from Atalan and Amehtana, but don’t expect anyone else to arrive in time.”
“When do you need it?” Prince Belmet II asked.
“From the looks of things, I would guess at least a week ago,” the King grinned. “I will expect to see it at sundown.”
The Prince nodded. “The strategy will not disappoint you. If the girl tells you any information which may be of use, send me a messenger.” He bowed and left with the map.
The King sighed and looked at the advisors that were still there. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said.
By the time they arrived at the gate, Mara’Uto had recovered from her lack of water and was sitting content on the shore while Captain Ishlemen checked her bandages. He stood and bowed as the Great King walked down to the shore.
“Captain,” the King greeted with a nod, “you have my thanks for the hasty warning.” He knelt beside Mara’Uto. “I am Felarikam, Great King of Tanarad. What is your name?”
“Mara’Uto,” she answered.
King Felarikam noticed the large gash on her leg where Captain Ishlemen had temporarily removed the bandage. “I see you have met with injury during your travels. I also understand that you traveled part of the way with a companion. Where is she?”
“Shime’Kar was hurt by the soldiers of darkness this morning and can’t move. She made me leave her in the forest by the river.” Mara’Uto sniffed. “She needs help. Please send someone to help her.”
“I am sorry,” replied the Great King, “but the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar will not permit me to meddle in the affairs of their members, not even to save lives. However, I have sent for the Supreme Mistress and she will be able to send help for Shime’Kar.” He sighed. “I really wish I could help her, I really do, but Mara’Uto, while we wait, tell me what caused you to leave your home in the sea and travel across our land.”
“Our home was attacked while we slept,” answered Mara’Uto, “so my father led our army behind the enemy and attacked while the enemy was still at Itragoni. I was only there because I had played around and got my arm stuck in a na’karden harness and wasn’t noticed until it was too late for them to turn back.” She sniffed and wiped away some tears. “I cannot remember the battle but I did watch as they killed my father moments before Shime’Kar rescued me.”
“Shime’Kar rescued you?” croaked an old yet strong and resolute voice behind them. Mara’Uto glanced back and saw an old woman wearing a purple cloak slowly making her way down from the causeway gate to the shore. Three other women dressed like her stayed at the gate with their horses. “Sister Shime’Kar did many things but rescuing others was not one of them.”
Mara’Uto felt nervous under the woman’s cold gaze and looked back at the bay. “Shime’Kar rescued me,” she affirmed. “She carried me from the battlefield, tended my wounds, and brought me with her from Itragoni. She said I could get my fins healed in Atalan.” She lifted her fins out of the water so everyone could see their tattered state.
King Felarikam frowned and shook his head. “There is no medicine that can rebuild those.” He looked up at the woman. “Ikarla’Yol, is there anything the Sisterhood can do for her?”
The old woman stooped next to Mara’Uto and took the girl’s chin in her hand. Mara’Uto’s head was turned and she found herself looking into Ikarla’Yol’s purple gaze. As the old woman noticed the color of Mara’Uto’s eyes, she let out an almost imperceptible gasp and tried hard to conceal the look of surprise that crossed her face. “Where is Shime’Kar now?” she asked.
“She had me leave her by the river in the forest,” Mara’Uto answered. “We were attacked by soldiers of darkness this morning and now she cannot move.”
The Supreme Mistress gave Mara’Uto a distrustful look. “You are not telling everything,” she guessed.
“Be easy on her,” the King said. “The last few days have been hard on her and some things she may not wish to speak about just yet.”
The old woman frowned and turned toward several other women standing on the shore. “Siphi’Mem, Thesu’Rah, follow the Torudo River north until you find Sister Shime’Kar. Try to find out what really happened.” She turned back to Mara’Uto as the two women rode away, but released her face. “One may be immobilized during a fight, but not after. I will find out how you escaped while she did not.”
“Perhaps she would tell you more if you’d give her a chance to warm up to you,” the Great King suggested, grinning at the Supreme Mistress.
There was a brief pause before the old woman replied. “I think the Sisterhood may be able to do something for the fins. I think I have everything I need except for a month’s supply of hagsnik.”
“Hagsnik?” asked the Great King. “At this time of year?”
Ikarla’Yol nodded. She stepped into the water bent down to pick up one of Mara’Uto’s fins and examined it. “The healing will be hard on the girl as it is,” she explained, “and if we wait too long, it might not work at all.” She released the fin back into the water and stood up. “A month’s supply of hagsnik and nothing else; the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar will reimburse you for what is used and any extra will be returned.”
The King stood up and faced the old woman with a grin. “The Sisterhood has more than earned it,” he assured. “I will have it delivered by the end of today.” He bent down and put his hand on Mara’Uto’s shoulder. “Thank you for bringing us the only warning of the coming battle; Tanarad is indebted to you. I will leave you with the Supreme Mistress. Ikarla’Yol will take good care of you. While she does what she can for your fins, I will send the Awa ambassador to find your mother and bring her to Atalan.”
“Thank you,” Mara’Uto replied, flicking some more water on herself.
The King walked to the gate and turned back around. “Ikarla’Yol,” he called, “Gerzh brings war to Tanarad and tomorrow I would have you fight by my side.”
“The Sisterhood will be with you,” the Supreme Mistress called back, “but I have more important affairs and will not be present.” While the Great King and his advisors began to walk down the causeway to Atalan and the palace, she bent down and with strength previously hidden by the frail appearance of her body, picked up Mara’Uto. She held one of her hands against Mara’Uto’s head and soon the girl was asleep in her arms. The Supreme Mistress carried Mara’Uto to the gate and handed her to the other woman. “I never suspected that the Awa could carry the bloodline of the Lunari and I doubt the Dark Wizard ever considered the same. I can feel the power of the Lunari flowing through her, but something is making it seem tangled and elusive. Take her to my quarters and set her in a warm bath. Feel free to see if you can make any sense of her power.”
As Ikarla’Yol mounted her horse and began to ride back toward the city, the second woman looked down at the girl and closed her eyes, using her magic like twisting tendrils to explore the strong power she was holding. The unexpected complexity of the girl’s power staggered her for a moment. It appeared larger than normal, restless, and constantly in motion, warding off her attempts to probe beyond the outermost facets. Growing bolder, her magic gripped tight to the moving power and held on as it tried to shake her off. It felt strangely familiar, as if she had previously felt the presence of this power before. Finally, a small tendril discovered a tiny crack and peered inside. The woman gasped. There before her was the girl’s power, calm and serene like normal. Her eyes opened wide and she released her magical grip on Mara’Uto’s power as she suddenly recognized the source of the outer shell of power. “Ikarla’Yol,” she called to the now distant Supreme Mistress, “come back quickly!”
The Supreme Mistress turned her horse around on the causeway and began to ride back. “Andara’Cas, what is it?” she asked.
“I do not know how it was done,” Andara’Cas replied, “but the girl carries an uncontrollable power with her. She cannot be taken into the city.”
“Nonsense,” Ikarla’Yol said. “You of all people should know that all power can be controlled.”
Andara’Cas shook her head. “Search for the power of the girl and you will find the power of Sister Shime’Kar resisting your probing. I know it sounds strange, but...”
“Shush,” the Supreme Mistress ordered, glancing at the guards standing by the gate. “Such things are better discussed in private. If we cannot take the girl into the city, take her to the White Pillar and tell no one of her presence. I will have the high council gathered and meet you there shortly.” She turned and rode away again.
Andara’Cas sighed. She could only guess the volatility she held in her arms. Ikarla’Yol was right, the White Pillar was probably the safest place for the girl and she would have to take her there as safely as possible. She nudged her horse forward and began to ride toward the docks.