Mara’Uto was awakened by Shime’Kar lightly shaking her. “Wake up,” Shime’Kar said softly. “We will be safe here.”
She opened her eyes and looked around. The sky was just beginning to brighten and hide the stars. They were nearing the rise, although now she could see that it was a bit larger than she had first thought from the far distance earlier that night. A stone wall circled the hill and several buildings were built in the area. Well armed soldiers stood guarding the gate through the wall. They wore red cloaks and each had a red armband wrapped around their right bicep. “Halt! Who are you and what brings you to Therazan?” one of the guards asked.
Shime’Kar stopped the horse just outside of the range of their spears and dismounted. “I am Shime’Kar, sister of Antak, your Captain,” she answered. “I have ridden all day and night and require a safe place to rest.”
“Get Captain Antak,” the soldier turned and ordered one of the others. He turned back to Shime’Kar as the other soldier ran into the stronghold. “Who is your companion?” he asked, looking up at Mara’Uto who was still sitting on the horse.
“She is a girl of the Awa,” Shime’Kar replied. “I saved her from the army of the Dark Wizard at Itragoni. I am taking her with me to Atalan.”
The soldier looked at her quizzically. “Army?”
Shime’Kar patted her horse’s neck and grinned at the soldier. “There isn’t much that could make me drive a horse so hard.”
The other soldier soon returned with another beside him. Mara’Uto could see the facial resemblance the man had with Shime’Kar. The two embraced. “Shime’Kar, welcome to Therazan. It has been years since I have seen you!” he exclaimed. He looked her over. “You look like you’ve been keeping yourself busy.”
Shime’Kar smiled. “I’ve been here and there, but not doing anything the rest of the world would hear about, not like you, Antak, Captain of the Red Exemplars. I always knew you would do it.”
“It doesn’t come easy,” he replied in a serious tone, holding out his forearm to show a few thin scars. He turned to Mara’Uto. “And who might this be?”
“She is Mara’Uto,” Shime’Kar said, “an Awa girl that chance brought to me at Itragoni two days ago. She was wounded in the battle and I am taking her with me to Atalan.”
“Chance or prophecy?” asked Captain Antak. “You should know I do not believe in chance.”
“I knew you would ask that,” Shime’Kar said. “I have news to tell you, but this girl has been away from the sea for too long and her skin is drying out. This is our last stop before Atalan with a decent supply of water. She needs to be able to soak her skin.”
“We have a full cistern and can provide her with a warm bath,” Captain Antak agreed. “Come on in, you can rest here as long as you need.” He motioned for one of the soldiers to lead the horse with Mara’Uto as they walked through the gate. They walked to a building partway around the hill. “This is the bathhouse,” Captain Antak announced. “I’ll keep my men from using it so the girl has some privacy.”
Shime’Kar picked up Mara’Uto and carried her inside. It was dimly lit but warm and steamy. There was a fireplace at the far end of the room and a large stone basin filled with water to one side. Shime’Kar set Mara’Uto on the floor and dipped her hand in the water. “The water’s warm,” she announced.
“We don’t usually have warm water where I live,” Mara’Uto said. “It is hard to build fires when you live in the ocean.”
Shime’Kar laughed and unwrapped the blanket around Mara’Uto. “Then this is a special treat for you,” she smiled, picking up the girl and setting her into the basin. “I am going to leave the bandages on so I don’t have to put them back on later.” She took a few pieces of bread from her pack and placed them on the side of the basin. “Have some food while you relax. If you need anything, I will be right outside.” Mara’Uto sighed and leaned back into the water as Shime’Kar left the room.
The cool morning air hit Shime’Kar as she stepped out the door of the warm bathhouse. Her horse and most of the soldiers had left, but her brother, Antak, was still there. “I had your horse taken to be stabled while you stay,” he informed her. “So what news have you brought me?”
Shime’Kar sat down with her back against the bathhouse. “The enemy is chasing me,” she said. “They saw me leave Itragoni the day before yesterday and have been following me ever since.”
“The soldiers of darkness are no match for my men,” Antak assured her. “If they come here looking for you, we will protect you.”
“No, Antak,” Shime’Kar said, shaking her head, “it is more than just the soldiers of darkness. The entire army of the Dark Wizard is behind me on its way to Atalan.”
“I don’t think so,” Antak replied. “The Dark Wizard has not been able to attack Tanarad since he lost most of his soldiers in the same battle he killed the Great King Beltay over fifty years ago.”
“Itragoni was burning when I left it,” Shime’Kar argued. “Eeraman and most likely Amis fell yesterday. The Dark Wizard has soldiers and the horses to move them quickly. I rode through the night to try and get a bit further ahead of them, but I don’t think they are too far behind.”
“You could have traveled faster if you didn’t bring the girl with you,” Antak suggested.
“The Awa attempted to give Atalan a little more time by sending a small army against him at Itragoni. The girl was the only Awa survivor I found and she was only there by accident.”
Antak put his arm around Shime’Kar. “You know I don’t believe in chance accidents.”
Shime’Kar chuckled. “The Awa share our origins despite their altered bodies. I haven’t told Mara’Uto yet, but her purple eyes suggest to me that Lunari blood flows in her veins. I am taking her to the Sisterhood to see if they will train her to use magic as I can.”
Antak nodded. “Sole survivor, purple eyes, one of the Awa on land; sounds more like prophecy than chance to me!”
“I don’t want to tell her just yet,” Shime’Kar said. “I don’t want her to get her hopes up just in case things don’t work out.”
“I understand, I won’t tell her.” Antak leaned back in silent contemplation. “The Dark Wizard will surely know about Therazan and attempt to destroy us,” he finally said. “Get some sleep. If we see anyone coming, we will wake you and send you on your way.” He stood up to leave but Shime’Kar tugged at his cloak. He looked back down at her.
Shime’Kar smiled. “Antak, it is nice to see you again,” she said.
Antak sat back down and put his arm back around Shime’Kar. “You sound like you’ve missed me,” he said as she rested her head on his shoulder.
“We went our separate ways and years later, our paths finally cross once again.” She closed her eyes. “Yes, I missed you.”
Antak let Shime’Kar fall asleep leaning on him. The sun was rising and there were always things to do, but the two siblings had not seen each other in years and he would let her enjoy the moment.
It was mid afternoon when Shime’Kar awoke. Antak had laid her on the ground and set her pack beneath her head as a pillow. She was still groggy from her nap when she sat up. She yawned and looked around. Several Red Exemplars ran past her along the path. Her eyes followed them as they took positions along the wall. A thin cloud of dust was rising far to the north. Dust! Shime’Kar was through the door of the bathhouse before she was fully on her feet. She grabbed the blanket off the floor and tossed it to Mara’Uto. “We need to get out of here. Wrap yourself while I find the horse.”
She ran back outside and looked around. She had no idea where the stable was. She ran toward the north end of the hill where the Red Exemplars were gathering. She grabbed one and spun him around. “Where is Antak?” she demanded urgently. “Where is the stable?”
“The stable is on the far side of the hill,” the soldier answered. “I do not know where...”
Shime’Kar gave him a quick pat on the shoulder and interrupted his answer. “Enjoy your fight!” She ran back the way she came, passed the bathhouse, and began looking for the stable. She quickly found it. The stable was little more than a fence with a number of horses inside. Antak and five others of the Red Exemplars were already there, riding out on horses. They were lightly armored with their shields slung over their backs, a sword at their side, and were each carrying three short spears.
Antak had a second horse with him. “Take this fresh horse,” he ordered. “It is my fastest and yours is too tired to go much farther.” She mounted the horse and rode back to the bathhouse with the five Red Exemplars following her.
As Shime’Kar dismounted to get Mara’Uto, she glanced north. The cloud of dust was growing nearer. She found Mara’Uto just inside with the blanket wrapped around her and painfully trying to walk to the door on her fins. Shime’Kar picked her up and carried her out to the horse. She could hear the rumble of the many soldiers riding toward them across the grassland.
“We will cover your escape,” Antak told her, motioning to the five others with him. “Follow us to the other gate.” They turned their horses and Antak led them out a gate on the southern side of the hill. “Head southeast,” he shouted to Shime’Kar over the thunderous noise of the many horses closing in on them. “Once you reach the Torudo River, it should be easy to get to Atalan.”
Shime’Kar nodded and gave her brother a quick wave as she urged her horse to run as fast as it could. The six soldiers fanned out behind her, going slower to try to catch any of the enemy that attempted pursuit.
Shime’Kar looked back. There were too many enemy soldiers to count. Most of them seemed to ride around the hill, but a large number broke off and continued to ride after them. The enemy soldiers brandished their swords as they slowly closed the distance between them.
Antak raised a spear in the air and the Red Exemplars turned to meet the enemy. Antak let go of his reins, took a spear in each hand, and thrust them through the first two soldiers. The other Red Exemplars followed his example, but their kills did little to thin the numbers of the enemy. He grabbed his last spear as he wheeled around to chase the enemy. The Red Exemplars began to ride among the enemy soldiers, attacking with their spears while trying to dodge the enemy swords. Many more of the enemy soldiers were killed but so were some of the Red Exemplars.
“Take the reins,” Shime’Kar ordered Mara’Uto. She let go and twisted around to look behind while Mara’Uto took control of the horse. Only Antak and a handful of the enemy soldiers were left. She held out her hand and aimed to blast the enemy with her magic. Mara’Uto did not know how to control a horse and had never even seen a horse until just a few days before. She took hold of the reins and pulled back. The horse stopped suddenly, causing both of them to fall unexpectedly to the ground.
Antak saw the two fall from their horse ahead of him and began to frantically hack at the enemy to his left with his sword. One of the other enemy soldiers rode around to his right, drawing his attention to the new threat. He turned and thrust his sword into the enemy’s chest. As he turned back to the enemy on his left, a sword struck his face, slicing through his left eye all the way back to his ear. He did not know what hit him and fell from his horse.
Shime’Kar had the wind knocked out of her when she hit the ground. She rolled over to catch her breath and looked at the Awa girl on the ground beside her. Mara’Uto had scraped her face and had some tears in her eyes but was moving and trying to get out of the blanket. Shime’Kar saw their horse standing nearby and heard the sound of approaching hooves. She looked behind her. The enemy soldiers were rapidly approaching. There were several riderless horses among them but no Red Exemplars. “Antak!” she screamed.
She rose to her feet and faced the coming enemy soldiers. She pointed her hands at them and let loose with her magic. Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! The remaining enemy soldiers fell to the ground as her lightning flickered across the grassland. The horses scattered but did not go far before they slowed down and stopped. Shime’Kar ran to the nearest patch of red lying in the green grass.
Tears began to fill her eyes as she knelt beside the bloodied body of her brother. He was still faintly breathing but the gash in his head let her know he would not live much longer. She wrapped her arms around his torso and held him close, not caring about the blood staining her cloak. “Antak, don’t die,” she softly pleaded.
Antak let out a soft moan and his remaining eye fluttered open as he heard her voice and felt her arms around him. “Shime’Kar, you need to go.” His jaw moved awkwardly as he tried to speak. “The Red Exemplars can defend themselves but you must warn Atalan if the rest of the world will survive what is coming.”
“No,” Shime’Kar cried, shaking her head, “I can’t just leave you here.” She tightened her grip on him.
“I would only slow you down!” Antak painfully argued. “Take my armband if you must, but get to...” He started coughing from the blood flowing into his mouth and down his throat. Shime’Kar patted his back as the strength of his coughing jerked his body. Antak leaned his head back and stopped coughing a moment later. He closed his eye and smiled. “Take the Awa girl and go. I know you will make it.”
“Antak,” Shime’Kar cried. Antak took one last breath before his body went limp in her arms. She gave her brother one last hug before laying his body back on the ground. She slowly removed the red armband from his right arm. As she tightly clasped the red cloth in her hand, she glanced back toward Therazan. Smoke was rising from the hill and she wondered if any of the Red Exemplars had survived. She knew that if she stayed in the open grassland, the enemy soldiers would soon come after her. She grabbed Antak’s sword and ran back to Mara’Uto.
“Wrap the blanket around you again,” she instructed the girl. Shime’Kar walked over to the horse and tied the sword and red armband to the harness. “I’m sorry about the fall. I hope you are not hurt too badly.”
“I only got a few scratches,” Mara’Uto replied. “I miss the sea. I wasn’t made to be on land.”
Shime’Kar walked over and picked up the girl. “Hang in there,” she encouraged. “We should reach Atalan tomorrow.” She mounted the horse and soon they were riding southeast once again.
“What does Atalan look like?” Mara’Uto asked.
“Atalan is the greatest city in the world,” Shime’Kar answered. “The entire city is built from white stone on an island in the Bay of Anamnesis. It is often called ‘the light shining across the world,’ and for good reason too; the sun reflecting off the white stone brightens the world around it. Tomorrow you will know we are nearing Atalan when you see a glow on the horizon.”
“And the water?” Mara’Uto asked.
Shime’Kar smiled. “The clearest water I have ever seen. If the Bay of Anamnesis does not meet with your approval, I don’t know what will.”
“It sounds like a wonderful place,” Mara’Uto agreed, “but it is not home.” She sat in silence for a moment before she continued. “I miss my home. I miss my mother and my friends and I still find it hard to believe my father was killed before my eyes right before you found me.” She sniffed and buried her face in the blanket.
Shime’Kar held the girl tighter and patted her shoulder with her free hand. “I know how you feel. That was my brother fighting the soldiers chasing us this afternoon. Antak and his best men died so we might have a chance to live. I am sure your father and his soldiers did the same for you at Itragoni.”
Mara’Uto pulled the blanket down and freed her arms. She twisted and tightly hugged Shime’Kar. “Why do bad things like this have to happen?” she cried, resting her had on Shime’Kar’s shoulder.
Shime’Kar sighed. “I wish I had a good answer for you but I don’t. There are evil people who have no regard for others and will stop at nothing to further their own power over our world. All I can do is live my life fighting against their evil with the hope that one day my efforts will have an effect and things will improve.” She looked behind them but did not see anyone pursuing them. “We can slow down when we reach the trees. Then I’ll teach you how to control a horse.” Mara’Uto giggled but did not release her arms from around Shime’Kar.
When they reached concealment of the trees, Shime’Kar stopped the horse and repositioned Mara’Uto on the horse so she was straddling it instead of being held sideways. She had to loosen the blanket and the upper half of Mara’Uto was left exposed with it draped loosely over her legs and fins. “Watch how I control the horse,” Shime’Kar instructed. “The reins are fitted to its head and when I hold my end, the horse knows I am in control and it is eager to do what I want it to do. A quick snap tells the horse to begin walking, but you have to hold them loose since pulling back tells the horse to stop.”
“That would be what I did wrong earlier,” Mara’Uto said. “How do you make it turn?”