Whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from fear of evil.
t was almost mid-morning when Taarna finished her practice. She was hot, sweaty and tired.
She returned her weapon to the rack and paused, her gaze coming to rest upon another sword in a sheath next to hers. Slowly, respectfully, she withdrew it from its scabbard and held it before her. To perserve a memory she had kept it clean and polished, and its dull, silver finish glimmered coldly in the half-light. Excepting length and weight, it matched hers exactly.
The sword had belonged to Kanei, her husband. His parents had given the paired weapons to them as a wedding gift. They had been skillfully hand-crafted, the steel blades carefully tempered and flexible, the cross-guards polished silver, the grips wrapped in black leather.
Studying the weapon, her mind drifted back to thoughts of her husband, and their short but happy marriage: soaring high on their birds, flying closely together with skill and precision; hunting in the outlands for wild game; sparring together here, in this chamber, for endless hours; long walks together in the city streets; occasional swims at the public baths; family gatherings on feast days and holidays, with music and dancing; the joy they had felt when their daughter was born. In a period when unsettling changes were taking place among their people, yet they had been happy times, the happiest times that she could remember.
He had died after they had been called upon to help local stockmen who had been preyed upon by brigands. Some of the stockmen had agreed to act as lures, and the Taarakians had set up an ambush to capture or kill the robbers. The brigands took the bait, and in the ensuing struggle Kanei had received a glancing blow to the neck with a mace.
At the time no one had given the injury a second thought. A bruise developed, but it did not appear serious. Then, four days after the skirmish, he had been descending the stairs when he suddenly fell. He was dead by the time she reached his side. The physicians in the city told her that he had probably suffered an injury to a blood vessel, and that a clot had developed which had broken off and traveled to the brain, killing him.
His death had been a terrible shock, the first of many that were to come. Her grief was a black shroud which for a time had blotted out the life within her, transforming her into a shell of her former self. She was unable to focus or function, barely able to care for her daughter.
Slowly, however, the pieces of her life had begun to coalesce, the merciful passage of time blunting her distress. She realized that as Cynane's only parent, she would have to be strong for her. So one morning, she awoke with a firm resolve to regain control over her life and move forward, for her daughter's sake as well as her own.
As she returned to the courtyard to saddle the bird, a sickening sensation overcame her. She stopped and bent over, clutching her stomach. A pounding began inside her skull, causing her to fall to her knees. She put out her arms and fell forward on all fours, head lowered, breathing rapidly. The throbbing in her head continued relentlessly, its tempo slowly increasing and intensifying. She grimaced and fell prostrate, clasping the back of her head with both hands, waiting for it to stop. The metallic taste of bile filled her mouth.
She knew that she was being summoned, for it had happened to her several times in the distant past. But knowing this did not relieve the nausea in her gut which crept ever higher up her throat. She panted rapidly, eyes shut, enduring the pain and awaiting the vision. Slowly, with the seconds seeming to drag into minutes, it began: the thudding lessened, the nausea relented, and her breathing slowed and became deeper. She slipped into unconsciousness, and collapsed onto the dusty ground.
The vision came: her mind's eye opened. She was looking out through the half-closed eyes of another person. She knew of him--the Elder of Kraan; and after a brief moment of disorientation, she knew where he was--spinning slowly on a floating dais in Kraan's vast council chambers. The airy place was brilliantly lit by rays of sunlight pouring down through an opening in the ceiling. She could hear him and the other councilmen rhythmically repeating her name, and beneath that an ominous, steady booming coming somewhere from the floor below. Faintly in the background she also heard a multitude of frantic shouting and shrieking. There was a palpable aura of terror hanging over the men.
Abruptly, the vision ended. There was no remnant of the pounding headache, or of the sickening sensation in her abdomen. Taarna stood up quickly, agitated and alarmed. The day she had dreaded had finally come: a Summons to her--her alone.
A prickly sensation arose in the back of her neck, and fear of the unknown gripped her. It was a feeling of something going horribly wrong, of an overwhelmingly malevolent force tearing the world asunder. She had experienced apprehension after being summoned in the past--it was an expected reaction when exposed to a new threat--but this was different. It stirred in her mind a blurred memory--a dream, perhaps, of fleeing from an enormous, terrifying object--unreasoning, unstoppable and bent on her destruction. Its cold weight made her want to withdraw into her home, to shrink away in confusion and fear. In her heart she sensed that she was facing an overwhelmingly difficult, solitary challenge against an enemy more dangerous than any she had encountered.
For a moment she was immobilized with panic, her mind flooded with scattered thoughts running in every direction. But she fought hard to control this dangerous emotion, and aided by her discipline and training, she was able to bring herself under control. Yet, she was torn by indecision. The citizens of Kraan were in grave peril now, and a part of her felt that leaving straight for the city was the only course of action. But the strong call for instant action was undercut by an uneasy feeling that to leave immediately, without preparation, would be a mistake. Keenly aware that she was now the only Taarakian Defender alive, she was frightened by the fact that the attack on Kraan involved a numerous enemy.
Given that she was going to be one against many, Taarna followed her instincts: she would first try to retrieve the Sword of Taarak before flying to Kraan. The important decision to do so made her take a deep breath and expel the air slowly from her lungs. It helped her to focus and clear her thoughts.
The mystical Sword of Taarak was steeped in legend, its origins shrouded in mystery. It was thought to have been given by God to Taarak when his race was founded. It was believed to possess special powers which would ensure a victory if used to lead the Taarakians into battle. Under Taarakian law, however, it was to be drawn only in times of great need or peril.
Taarna had seen the sword only once, many years ago, and then only from afar. It was shortly after she had completed her training and had been initiated into the ranks as a full warrior, before the dark times which had signaled the dissolution of her race. The chieftain at that time had determined to use the weapon to lead them into battle against a sizable force of northern marauders threatening the borders of a client municipality. Taarna had been on foot in the conflict, assigned to the left wing of the Taarakian forces arrayed for battle. As a gesture intended to boost morale and kindle their fighting spirit, the chieftain had swooped low past their lines on her bird with the sword drawn. Taarna could still recall the tingling down her spine and the sense of awe that she felt upon seeing the weapon raised high by the powerful arm, its sharp point glinting in the sun, as her leader winged past to the responding shouts and yells of the troops.
The battle, a three-hour engagement, had gone very well for them that day. The mounted units had sought out and overwhelmed the opponents' cavalry. They then attacked the flanks and rear of the enemy's ground troops, who were pinned down by the Taarakians' main column and right wing. The left wing had delivered the final assault. It broke the enemy lines, causing a panic among the less disciplined soldiers and producing a rout.
Taarna had acquitted herself well in her first taste of actual combat. With shield and single-handed sword, she had lived in a blur from second to second, and did not immediately recall all that had occurred, or how many she had killed. It had been all fighting and savagery, accompanied by the din of combat: shouts, screams, grunts, and groans; the ring and thud of sword on shield, shield on breastplate, armor on armor. Her mind had quickly been overcome by a fierce, white anger--not hatred, but simply primal action and reaction, from one moment to the next--the anger necessary to kill without hesitation and not be killed. In fact, she had been surprised at the quantity of blood she had washed from her exhausted, trembling body afterwards. Her bright white hair had been splashed, dotted, and tangled with bits of gore. Plunging her arms into a bucket of cold water effaced into crimson clouds splattered, lunatic patterns of rusty red. Vertical streaks of red-tinged pink had made strange art of her sweaty midriff and thighs.
Later that night she was still not relaxed. Lying on the ground, staring at the darkened roof of her tent, some of the more dramatic and violent details had come to her . . . parrying an oncomer's blow with her shield, then thrusting her sword so sharply into his stomach that its tip burst from his lower back. Landing a blow on the hand of another, amputating his fingers and causing his sword to fly to the ground; then cleaving off his arm with a vertical sweep and producing a red, pulsating spray. Seeing one of her youthful female companions shot down with a crossbow bolt which punctured her throat with an obscene thwop and emerged--a grotesque, glistening, black splinter--from the back of her neck. Feinting a horizontal blow and turning her blade downwards at the last moment below the defensive parry of a hulking opponent's sword, amputating his leg between the knee and the top of his boot; then hacking the right cheek, lower jaw and tongue off his surprised face.
Yet, as violent and terrifying as the experience had been, fear had not been the only overriding emotion. Instead, in a way that she had not anticipated, the experience had been strangely liberating. For, in the midst of the carnage she had never felt more vital, more alive. It was as if death, being so perilously close, had removed everything that was unimportant and secondary to living in its purest sense. The enemy sword cut away the cultural crust of life, those social contours which men and women create for themselves and find most comfortable and familiar. As she grappled with a soldier in the dust, trying to keep his blade from her throat, and to thrust hers into his, there was neither past nor future, but only the present, in which she existed.
She pondered how this strange mixture of death and life had changed her. She would never be the same person she had been before today. She had taken human life and at the same time had, in a sense, taken the measure of her own life. And while her killing was the culmination--in fact, the goal--of years of training and preparation, it still troubled her. The justification was simple; her foes had been the aggressors, invading a client state unquestionably to plunder and subjugate. Still, staring into the blackness, she silently grieved not for the enemy soldiers, but for her heart, made a stone so she could become a remorseless destroyer of other human beings. She did not sleep well that night despite her exhaustion.
Since then, the ebb and flow of Taarna's life had followed the development of conflict and concomitant Taarakian call to arms. During peacetime, life would fall into a routine of training, drilling, and practice. Times of war were marked by an even stricter regimen of conduct. She quickly grasped the importance of the discipline and obedience which had been engrained into her character, for in the life or death struggles which followed her first exposure to combat, following orders often meant the difference between victory or defeat. Success on the battlefield, she would learn, could not be gained by the autonomous, uncoordinated fighting of an individual soldier, no matter how courageous he or she might be. She was part of a cohesive whole, and teamwork was just as important as personal bravery.
She also developed a strong personal loyalty to her officers and to the other warriors in her unit. No one wanted to be the person who made a mistake, to become a weak link in the chain--not when it might result in the death or injury of a brother or sister in arms. Disappointing a fellow soldier was feared more than death itself. Particularly in the heat of battle, it was the bond shared with the soldiers beside her that proved more important to remaining steady and giving her all than any lofty, conceptual loyalty to Taarakian protectorates.
In time, Taarna earned a reputation as a tough and agile fighter. In combat she was not bloodthirsty, for she did not derive pleasure from killing. Instead, she developed a sustained dexterity, and an uncanny ability to quickly and accurately size up her opponents. She rapidly matured into a highly skilled technician in the art of war.
Decision made, her training took over. She returned rapidly to her bedchamber and stripped. She withdrew a brown, floor-length cloak from the back of her wardrobe. Religious doctrine required a warrior entering the Taarakian Sanctuary to do so with great humility, and the plain, ceremonial robe was meant to be an outward sign of a contrite inner spirit. It had been years, however, since she had last worn it; and slipping it on, she felt like an imposter. She had become a stranger to it. It seemed to belong to an earlier Taarna, a woman from her past she no longer knew, someone who had not yet foresaken God. But with a sense of hypocritical unease, she put it on nevertheless.
She ran down the stairs, taking the steps in two's, and trotted through the courtyard and into the stable. Alata, sensing her excitement, uttered a high-pitched screech as Taarna fastened the saddle upon his back. She cinched it on with a practiced hand, then filled her canteen and made sure it and her other supplies were secure. For a moment she paused to consider whether to take her weapon, but she quickly decided that to do so would, somehow, betray her commitment to retrieve the Sword of Taarak. So she threw the hood of her cloak up over her head, climbed into the saddle, and with her heels in the stirrups, gave the bird a command.
The bird issued another cry, and after a few brief steps they were suddenly aloft, pulled into the air by the raw power of his beating wings. The air made a rushing, roaring sound over their leathery surface. Her preoccupation and feeling of urgency were briefly lost to the exhilaration she always experienced at the glorious moment when they escaped the ground together, soaring into the freedom of flight.
Taarna brought Alata about, and they climbed in a slow spiral ever higher above her home. When their altitude was sufficient to clear the mountain's summit, she signaled the bird for level flight. Gaining speed, they flew due west. When the mountain was behind them, she urged her mount into a shallow dive, trading altitude for speed. The animal willingly obliged, and soon they were flying low and fast over the rugged, barren surface.
As was her habit, she allowed Alata freedom to chose a vertical flight path. At times the bird passed close beneath high-ranging pipes suspended between peaks; at other times he dipped down into canyons, gaining momentary respite with a downward zoom, then beating his wings rapidly to clear the lip of the far wall. He periodically vocalized his pleasure with a throaty squawk.
The wind blew and dark gray clouds scudded across the crimson sky. The warm air felt good on her face. In addition to the miles of pipes, the landscape was infrequently studded with reminders of earlier, more prosperous times: moldering hulks and stripped shells of tracked and wheeled vehicles lay broken and bleached in the sun. They passed over dry riverbeds zigzagging across the landscape.
Occasionally they passed small birds wheeling in flight, or feathered carrion eaters circling above some half seen, unfortunate creature. Initially on the journey, she caught other glimpses of life. A few times she saw men riding bizarre, two- and four-legged beasts down dusty roads, sometimes pulling wagons. But soon, as their flight continued, no persons could be seen at all. Eventually, the land below flattened out into a broad, yellowish-tan plain, pocked with canyons of a reddish hue, and utterly devoid of life.
Glimmering in the distant haze, a monumental shape began to emerge on the horizon: a massive skeleton, impossibly huge. Its gigantic backbone, supported by equally enormous, curved ribs, soared hundreds of feet into the air, arching above a monolithic, sprawling pumping station. Its spine terminated at one end into a skull of incredible dimensions which rested on its upper jaw. Its teeth, each one bigger than her bird, were planted firmly into the hard plateau.
Seeing this from afar triggered an intense emotional response in her. Her breathing quickened, and her heart beat faster. She was rapidly approaching the Sanctuary of her race.