Shime’Kar slowed down the horse as the sun began to go down and Mara’Uto heard a familiar sound. “Water,” she whispered through her parched lips. She had been out of water for most of the day and her skin was beginning to dry out and crack. She had a painful headache and kept her eyes shut most of the ride, something Shime’Kar was thankful for since she didn’t want the girl to see the many corpses they were passing. Mara’Uto also tried to sleep but the constant jarring of the horse and the sound of its hooves hitting the ground kept her awake.
“There is a river just up ahead,” Shime’Kar said. “We will stop for the night on the far side.”
The path slowly descended as the sound of the river grew louder. Soon Mara’Uto could hear the splashing as they crossed. When they reached the other side, Shime’Kar dismounted and tied the reins to a tree. She quickly removed the helmet and other garments of her disguise and put on fresh clothing and a cloak of purple. On the back was a yellow thunderbolt outlined in red. She carefully picked up Mara’Uto and carried her to the riverbank. She waded into the river and slowly lowered the girl into the water, blanket and all.
The water was cool and refreshing to her skin but caused her wounds to briefly sting as they became wet. Shime’Kar splashed her face and permitted her to drink the clear water. As her headache began to subside, Mara’Uto began to be more responsive so Shime’Kar unwrapped the blanket and helped her sit up. She lifted her fins out of the water and started to cry when she saw how ragged they had become.
Shime’Kar carried Mara’Uto back to the riverbank and sat down with her feet still in the water. She sighed. “I know how bad you look, but we will get you healed when we get to Atalan.”
Mara’Uto twisted and wrapped her arms around Shime’Kar and began to cry on her shoulder. “They killed my father. They killed your friend,” she sobbed. “They were going to kill me too.”
Shime’Kar wet her hand and rubbed Mara’Uto’s back while holding her tight with the other. She knew it would be a long night. When Mara’Uto cried herself to sleep, Shime’Kar set her on the ground and lay down beside her. She pulled her feet out of the river and hoped to get at least a little bit of sleep before morning.
The sun was just coming up when something startled them from their sleep. Shime’Kar quickly put her hand over Mara’Uto’s mouth to keep her from making any noises. She saw something move on the far side of the river. Two soldiers of darkness on horses rode into view. The first was tall and lanky and carried a bow but the second was much stockier and held a club that looked like a tree trunk in his hands. Shime’Kar would have tried to kill them immediately but something about them made her hesitate.
The two soldiers of darkness dismounted at the riverbank. The thin one gave them a brief nod but the other just stood there and stared. Shime’Kar wondered about the needlework that looked so out of place on the cloak of the tall one. She was puzzled that they did not make any immediate aggressive movements. “Who are you?” she called to them.
“Ock. I slice, dice, cut, gut, a path of damage like a rut,” announced the tall soldier of darkness with a semblance of elegance. There was a moment of silence and then Ock elbowed the other.
“Jerutobikozord. Smash!” the second boomed. He dropped his club and plopped to the ground, all the while continuing to look across the river at them.
Ock sat down beside Jerutobikozord and set his bow beside him. He began to draw in the dirt with his finger while the big guy beside him pulled out a large chunk of dried meat and began to gnaw at it while watching what Ock was drawing. Shime’Kar let go of Mara’Uto and sat up. “Why are you just sitting there?” she asked. “Come over here and give me reason to kill you.”
Ock ignored her and without even looking up from what he was drawing in the dirt, held up a finger as if motioning for her to wait. Shime’Kar wrapped the still wet blanket around Mara’Uto and picked her up. “I’m not going to stick around and wait for these idiots to feel like attacking,” she quietly announced to Mara’Uto. She set the girl on the horse, untied the reins, and soon they were riding along the road away from the two soldiers of darkness.
“Why didn’t they attack?” Mara’Uto asked when they were farther down the road.
“I’m not sure,” answered Shime’Kar. “The thin guy appeared to have interests in things other than what the Dark Wizard trains the soldiers of darkness to do. The big guy seemed like he had no clue what he was doing and needed the thin one to tell him.”
“So the tall one wanted us to wait while he showed the big one what to do?”
“That is what it looked like,” Shime’Kar laughed. “All the others I’ve encountered seemed intent on nothing else besides killing everyone, but those two seem a little weird in the head.”
“Why didn’t they say anything else to us?” Mara’Uto asked. “That one you fooled yesterday after your friend was killed didn’t say much either.”
“It may be a product of their indoctrination by the Dark Wizard,” Shime’Kar suggested. “I think that by the time he unleashes them, they no longer know how to talk except to state their name and a brief personal slogan. It makes them more mysterious and inspires fear in the people they hunt. Personally, I think it just shows how brainless they truly are. Still, they tend to be quite proficient at what they do so if you ever see one of them, it would be wise to do everything you can to get away.”
“Well I still hope we never see them again,” Mara’Uto stated.
When Ock finished drawing his attack plans in the dirt and was convinced that Jerutobikozord understood what they would be doing, he picked up his bow and looked across the river. He was stunned that the far bank was empty despite asking his enemy to stay. He grabbed the big man sitting beside him and pointed at the empty riverbank. Jerutobikozord growled, grabbed his club, and the two of them stood up. The next time they found their prey, Ock knew he would have to show the attack plan before their enemy knew they were around.
They rode in silence for a while. Mara’Uto kept her eyes open, taking in the strange sights she had never before seen since she had always lived in the ocean. To her, the trees looked like strange coral that grew from the ground reaching up to the sky to spread their green tops to the sun. Smaller shrubs reminded her of thinner branching types of coral and the grass made her think of beds of algae. She enjoyed the brilliant colors of the wildflowers growing along the road and the many butterflies reminded her of some of the flashy fish that lived among the coral. When they stopped for a short break, Shime’Kar gave Mara’Uto some bread. “Here, eat this,” she said.
“What is it?” Mara’Uto asked, as she looked it over. “We only eat what we can catch or find in the sea.”
“It is bread,” Shime’Kar explained. “It is made from ground grain mixed with water and then cooked. It is one of our main foods. This specific kind is called sorfid, but we have several other varieties made with different grains.”
Mara’Uto bit into the bread. It was light and airy with a peculiar taste but she found it delicious and filling. Shime’Kar also gave her some water to drink.
When they came to the next river, Shime’Kar removed Mara’Uto’s bandages and quickly washed them. Mara’Uto winced as the bandage on her leg was removed. The gash was wider than she had expected and was still slowly bleeding. Shime’Kar explained that if they had more time, she would have sewn up the wound, but the bandage would have to do until they arrived in Atalan. After Shime’Kar put the bandages back on, they continued on their journey.
“How did you know to come find me on the battlefield?” Mara’Uto asked as they rode.
“I actually arrived at Itragoni early the day before,” Shime’Kar explained. “By that time, most of the people had already fled and only a handful of soldiers were left defending against the Dark Wizard’s army. On the day the Awa attacked, I went out on the battlefield looking for any survivors. I was about to give up when I heard your scream. It’s not every day that you find a girl wounded on a battlefield, so I had to investigate.” She laughed. “How did you get there?”
“My friend and I were playing around the na’karden while watching my father and the soldiers capture it and prepare it to leave. I got my arm caught in one of the ropes tied around it as it began to leave and my friend could not get me out. No one noticed me until that evening when it was too late for them to turn back. My father told me to get in the water near the shore so I wouldn’t be in the battle, but I stayed on until the na’karden stopped on the land. The last thing I remember was being thrown as the tail flicked back and forth.”
“It sounds like the past week has been very hard on you,” Shime’Kar said, “but don’t worry, I’m going to make sure you get the best care available in Atalan and then see about taking you home.” She sighed. “I just hope the Dark Wizard doesn’t get there first.
“But we left Itragoni before they did,” Mara’Uto argued.
“We have also taken the time to sleep and take several breaks,” Shime’Kar said. “While the Dark Wizard’s armies usually fight on foot, I did notice that he had enough horses still tied aboard his ships for every one of his soldiers and then some. He will ride them hard and fast with little regard for their health. Amis and Eeraman will fall and then there will be nothing between his army and Atalan.”
“Then we need to get to Atalan as fast as we can and warn them!” said Mara’Uto.
Shime’Kar nodded. “That is what we are doing, but with both of us on one horse, we have to go slower so it doesn’t tire as fast.” Something light blue behind a few shrubs just up the road suddenly drew her attention. “Close your eyes,” she ordered, putting her hand over Mara’Uto’s face. She stopped the horse when they were close enough for her to recognize it as a body. She knew it was a fresh kill because the blood was still wet. “Be quiet,” she whispered.
They sat in silence, quietly listening to the breeze rustling the leaves in the trees and the heavy breathing of the horse. “What’s wrong?” Mara’Uto asked.”
“We are near Eeraman,” Shime’Kar whispered back, “and by the looks of things...” She paused as they heard a scream far in the distance.
Mara’Uto breathed in sharply and Shime’Kar felt her tense up. “I don’t want to stay here,” she softly whimpered.
“Neither do I,” Shime’Kar agreed, uncovering Mara’Uto’s eyes and leaning forward. She urged the horse forward and they rode at a faster pace than before. “The enemy has come further than I had expected. We will ride longer today than tomorrow. For him to have come so fast, I believe he has divided his army and attacked both Amis and Eeraman at the same time. Those in Eeraman will wait for the rest of the army to arrive from Amis.”
They started to hear shouts and yells coming from the direction of the city and growing closer. People were running through the forest toward them. Shime’Kar pulled the horse to a sudden stop as a stampede of several scores of panic-stricken people, oblivious to their presence, ran across the road. A snarling soldier of darkness was close behind them but fell to the ground as he was struck by a blast of lightning from Shime’Kar’s hand.
The people stopped when they heard the crack of the lightning and turned to see the two on the horse and recognized Shime’Kar as a member of the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar. “Save us!” one of the men pleaded. “They are everywhere. You have to save us!”
Shime’Kar looked at them sternly. “The people of Tanarad considered the Sisterhood to be nothing more than untrustworthy witches. Why, after such rejection of our powers, do you look to me for assistance?” she asked.
“Because you can defeat them in ways we cannot,” the man maintained. “Our army was overrun before we knew we were being attacked and we have no weapons.”
Shime’Kar silently debated with herself for a moment. “Is there a healer among you?” she finally asked.
One of the women stepped forward and held up a small pouch. “I am a healer, but I have no medicines with me.”
“I really must get to Atalan as fast as I can,” Shime’Kar said, “but if you help me, I will stay for awhile and provide my assistance as best I can.”
“We will do anything you want,” the man agreed.
Shime’Kar dismounted and carried Mara’Uto to the side of the road. “This Awa girl was badly hurt at Itragoni,” she said, setting Mara’Uto on the grass and unwrapping the wet blanket. I have bandaged her as best I could in what little time I had, but she has a wound on her leg that needs stitching.”
The woman knelt down beside Mara’Uto while the other people began to crowd around since they had never seen one of the Awa before. Mara’Uto groaned when Shime’Kar untied the bandage and exposed the large cut. “This is her worst wound,” Shime’Kar explained. “Take care of it and when you finish, see if you can do anything for her fins.” The woman nodded and was already digging through her pouch for needle and thread. Shime’Kar picked up a short stick and wrapped a piece of cloth around it. “Bite down on this when it starts to hurt,” she said, sticking it into Mara’Uto’s mouth. “It will help you through the pain.” She motioned to several other women in the crowd. “Hold her down,” she instructed.
Shime’Kar stood up. “The rest of you should be focusing on staying alive, not fleeing,” she said. “There are enough of you here that a single soldier of darkness should be no problem to overcome.”
“But we have no weapons,” the man argued.
Shime’Kar held her hand in front of her and a ball of fire appeared but did not burn her skin. “There are plenty of trees,” she said, tossing the ball of fire at the base of a distant tree. “Make spears and build a fort,” she suggested. “There are plenty of options; you just have to choose to do them.”
The man nodded and smiled. “Make a small clearing,” he ordered a few people standing beside him. “The rest of us, let’s start burning down trees to use as walls!”
The people sprang into action. Shime’Kar walked around the area starting more fires while others tended the fires and kept them burning. Those clearing the area for the fort were pulling out all the shrubs and clearing away the fallen sticks and rocks. Smoke filled the air but the people did not care. Shime’Kar had given them enough reassurance that they felt they had a fighting chance and worked feverishly to prepare their defenses. As the trees began to fall, the people carried them to the clearing and lined the edges with the trunks. Soon the walls were several trees high and they were setting up sharpened branches to stick outward.
It was dark by the time Shime’Kar returned to Mara’Uto but the area was well lit by the many fires that had been started and were still burning. The woman that had stitched the wound on Mara’Uto’s leg had not been able to do anything about her fins, but had taken the time to look at her other cuts to make sure they were properly cleaned. Shime’Kar found the women sitting around telling Mara’Uto about life on land while the girl listened intently. “We need to be going,” Shime’Kar announced, kneeling beside Mara’Uto.
“But it is late,” said one of the women. “Why don’t you stay for the night?”
Shime’Kar glanced nervously into the darkness forest around them. “We need to get to Atalan. Tonight we will keep going at least until we cross the next river.”
“What is it?” the woman asked fearfully.
Shime’Kar picked up Mara’Uto. “Get everyone into the fort. If I were you, I wouldn’t sleep until morning.” She carried Mara’Uto to the horse. “Thank you for the help,” she called back to the people. “I would stay longer, but if I don’t go now, Atalan will fall in a few days.” She set Mara’Uto on the horse and mounted behind her. The people standing in their makeshift fort gave a dismal farewell as they rode away.
Shime’Kar urged the horse into a very fast gallop as people in the fort began to scream. Growls and snarls mixed with the sounds of bodies crashing through the undergrowth of the forest filled the air. Mara’Uto leaned to the side and turned her head to look back. Soldiers of darkness were streaming out of the forest from all directions and converging on the tiny structure where the people were gathered. Shime’Kar grabbed Mara’Uto’s arm and pulled her so she couldn’t look back. “You do not want to watch,” she insisted.
“Those people,” Mara’Uto moaned, “they helped us and now they are going to be killed.”
“That is not of our concern,” Shime’Kar replied. “We helped them and they helped us. At least now they may be able to survive a bit longer than they would have if we had left them to run aimlessly through the woods.”
The horse was tired by the time they reached the river, but Shime’Kar did not think it was safe to stop for the night. They took a quick break and wet Mara’Uto’s blanket before they continued at a slower pace. A short while past the river, the forest ended and they were riding across a wide grassland. Even though it was night, the moon provided enough light for them to see far around them. Shime’Kar directed the horse off the road and toward a small rise far in the distance. She let the horse slow down to a walk on the soft grass. “Go ahead and sleep if you want,” she told Mara’Uto. “I’m going to keep us going until we get to a safe place and then rest through most of the day.”
Mara’Uto nodded and closed her eyes. She felt safe and trusted Shime’Kar knew what she was doing. She yawned and let the slow movement of the horse lull her to sleep.
Behind them, still in the forest, Ock watched as the horse carrying his prey turned toward a familiar landmark. He growled and motioned his change of plan to Jerutobikozord. They began to ride in a wide circle around the distant hill. They would bypass their prey and ambush them later.