I do my duty. Other things do not trouble me, for they are either things without life, or things without reason, or things that have wandered and know not the way.
--Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
pproaching the monumental structure, Taarna and her bird appeared tiny and insignificant, slipping through the skull's colossal orbits and fenestra. As they passed into the station, she prepared to descend vertically, clasping the reins tightly and hugging Alata with her legs. Deep into the bowels of the enormous structure they flew, spiraling through an extensive, complex network of pipes, ductwork, and tiered platforms. They frequently dove in an exhilarating rush directly down huge vertical shafts lit from the bright sun above. The air howled in the narrower passages, beating against them like a powerful fan. She was excited and elated by these surroundings. Her emotions were intensified by the tireless rhythm of her bird's muscles under her, and the abrupt changes in pitch and direction he made to complete their journey.
Moving swiftly through this inviolate space, Taarna also felt a strong sense of peace and security. Its staggering dimensions and stark interplay of light and shadow brought a palpable feeling of being in God's presence, in His sacred dwelling. It seemed to be a place where no evil could venture; where His goodness had always, and would always, prevail. Having pushed God out of her life, she did not consider herself worthy to participate in this feeling, but she clung to it nonetheless, seeking comfort in anything that provided relief from the oppressive, malignant sensation she had earlier experienced.
At last she passed through an elaborately decorated portal, and landed at one end of a vast chamber. As she dismounted, the bird hooted his pleasure at being permitted to rest.
The room looked exactly as she remembered it. In the gloom far above, she could barely discern the ceiling. Its broad expanse was largely concealed by an intricacy of pipes. An extremely large, deep pool of clear, still water stretched before her. It extended from one wall to the other. Its opposite side was over three hundred feet distant. An angled shaft of sunlight shone down and provided the sole source of illumination. Its brilliance contrasted with the darkness in the far reaches of the chamber. As an occasional cloud passed by in the sky somewhere high above, the intensity of the light waxed and waned, and the water's surface glimmered responsively. The effect was magical and breathtaking.
She emerged from the shadows and approached the pool with great reverence, unfastening her robe. With a soft whisper it slipped to the floor unnoticed, for she was enraptured by the object on the far side which dominated the chamber.
Kneeling upon a broad, tiered foundation was an enormous, pale statue of a Taarakian warrior, her outstretched arms holding a sword upright in front of her. Its dimensions were portentous; including the sword, it exceeded one hundred and fifty feet in height. Its face looked much like Taarna's--impassive and grim, with forbidding eyes and a solemn mouth. It was flanked by gigantic, sculptured likenesses of the birds which the Taarakians had bred and flown for centuries. The statue symbolized and combined three critical elements of the Taarakian warrior race and their fundamental relationship with God. These were the bird, the sword, and Woman. Deemed co-equal with men, women were highly revered in Taarakian culture.
She stopped at the edge of the sparkling pool. In her mind she recited by rote the short prayer required of any Taarakian seeking to undergo ablution and cross the sacred water. She did not feel purified, but without hesitating further, she dove in and began swimming toward the opposite side. She was unaccustomed to being in such a large volume of water, and opening her eyes was unable to see the bottom somewhere deep below her. Swimming unclothed through its coolness, she felt wonderfully refreshed and alive. The dust and sweat of the morning were washed away, and she was reinvigorated.
Water ran off the smooth, angular contours of her shoulders as Taarna arose from the pool. Standing erect on a broad, sloped pedestal which greeted the water's edge, she was beautiful, her body lean, muscular, and largely unscarred despite many engagements.
Never before had she stood on this side of the pool with the intention of possessing the Sword of Taarak hidden in the dais above, and the thought of it made her anxious. She had always served as a soldier in the rank and file, not as an officer, and prior to now, had no reason to consider what she was contemplating.
As she stood on the pedestal, naked and alone in the stark, cavernous chamber, she heard the whistling of the wind through vents high above where light entered the temple. It was a lonely, haunting sound--the only sound in the vast room--and she paused to listen. As she looked about, her previous elation was mocked by the emptiness which greeted her. The thought that she was the only surviving Taarakian abruptly loomed large, and her anxiety rapidly degenerated into powerful feelings of self-doubt, sorrow, and loneliness. The world suddenly felt odd and disjointed.
How could it be that after these many years, she was the only Taarakian left standing in this enormous room, contemplating the defense of an entire city against an invading army? When she had last been here for an initiation ceremony years ago, there had been many of her race, standing rank after rank, weapons and armor glittering, the enormous braziers on either side of the ramp burning high. Now, through some unimaginable working of fate, her family, friends, and companions--every Taarakian save her--were gone, and the braziers were dark and cold in an empty room.
This realization, she now confessed to herself, was precisely why she had stayed away for so long--because to come back would have been a piercingly painful confirmation of her solitude and loneliness. It had been far simpler to pray in the comfortable surroundings of her home rather than to return to this place of public worship, where the stark reality of her race's destruction was so palpable. Yet, she realized that she had paid a price for this avoidance. It now struck her just how much she had missed the majesty of this chamber; how much it had meant to be here so many times, and how much she had missed the feeling of solidarity, community, and identity with her brethren which participation in worship here had brought. The experiences here, heaped one upon another over a quarter century, had become an integral part of her. And it was a part that had been severed and lost.
She had not anticipated the jumble of emotions that returning to the Sanctuary would bring. Being here again was a paradox: she felt closer to God, yet terribly, terribly alone. And the brutal emptiness made the notion of her single-handedly attempting a defense appear silly and ridiculous, the judgment to leave her home seem ill-advised and impulsive. The urge to flee came over her; to return, cringing, to the shell of a life she had been leading.
I am a sham, she thought. I stand here before you, my God, seeking something I do not deserve. In this place, at this moment, her anger toward God seemed small-minded and foolish. Her mind clouded, it seemed impossible to believe that the Sword would appear for one so unfaithful, and she berated herself for believing that it would.
Taarna paused in confusion, her thoughts conflicted, her heart downcast. Absentmindedly, she felt the water from her thick hair trickle down the middle of her back, thence descend in thin cool lines down her inner thighs to puddle beneath the arches of her feet. The eerie whistle of air continued, fluctuating softer and louder: the seeming whispers and sighs of the dead.
She looked at the floor for a moment, then slowly raised her head to the statue looming above her. The stone face glowered down at her, its features immovable, inscrutable. Staring at it, she felt as though she was looking into a mirror, and questions began to surface in her mind.
To ignore a Summons to defend was the gravest offense. If she turned now and left, who would she be? Alive, perhaps, but for what?
Memories flickered fleetingly through her mind, the faces and voices of those who had been closest to her. A glance exchanged with Chanmar: captain, expert swordsman, and source of inspiration to everyone in her unit, seconds before they arose from a trench to face the archers of the Narrosynthians, whose army outnumbered theirs three to one. Their eyes had met for only a second, but the bond they shared had been reaffirmed, and had given her courage to face the grim odds.
The pale, ashen face of her best friend Alyssa, whom she had held in her blood-soaked arms, trying desperately, futilely to staunch the flow from a deep stab wound in the armpit. Lacking a voice, she had only been able to nod in response to her mumbled, dying question: "Taarna, did we win?" The affirmation had been a lie, but Taarna could not have beared to see the reaction in Alyssa's rapidly unfocusing eyes if she had revealed the truth, saw no point in crushing a once indomitable spirit.
Finally Kanei, speaking to her on the battlefield after their victory over the Jaspenites, a fight in which Taarna had slain the enemy's second-in-command. She could still picture his face like it was yesterday, framed by the sun shining behind him in a bright blue sky, wind tousling his short, black hair, when he told her how proud he was to be her husband; how falling in love with her had been the best thing that had ever happened to him.
She snapped out of these memories with an almost physical jerk, her features twisted with disgust and self-loathing as she flung off the notion of flying back to safety. She would not be a coward, a disgrace. She would go forward with this endeavor come what may, regardless of the consequences. To do anything else meant no longer being a Taarakian; meant, in fact, being nothing less than a traitor to herself, her husband, and her people. She would betray everything that she believed in, everything that she stood for. So she hardened her face, squared her shoulders, and strode up the long ramp to the top.
There, inlaid upon the floor, she found a large, circular disc of rose-colored stone which was circumscribed by an intricate pattern of green and red triangles. She walked carefully around this and stood before a rectangle cut into the floor which was centered directly between the thighs of the statue. When she stepped upon the stone before it, the rectangular slab rose from the floor and slid back to reveal a small cavity beneath.
She gazed into the small space with curiosity, her thoughts again doubling back to the day that she had seen her chieftain ride past with the Sword held high. The warrior chieftain's dress lay inside, a carefully folded set of black and red garments. She looked doubtfully at the skimpy outfit. The Taarakians had long believed that the presence of women in battle elevated the fighting spirit of the males. The battle gear of the female commander was designed with this in mind; it was fashioned to accentuate and display the female form. It could be worn with relatively little risk when directing the fight from behind the front line, protected by a phalanx of guards. But Taarna did not have any retainers, and she was uneasy at the thought of wearing something with virtually no armor. But at this point, she had no choice.
She slipped on the outfit, which fit her surprisingly well: black stockings interwoven with steel thread which came to mid-thigh; a black choker with straps which descended down the midline of her back and front, coming together at the groin; slips of reinforced black fabric which covered her breasts and pubis; a black leather belt from which hung a red scabbard; a single red metal pauldron for the right shoulder; red leather boots and greaves, slightly oversized, secured behind the knees; and a red leather glove for the sword hand. Fully dressed, she found its light weight and freedom of movement remarkable. It offered almost no protection, however, against arrow or sword. She felt uncomfortably vulnerable in it, and thought ruefully about the armor she had left at home.
And yet, as she grew accustomed to its look and feel, she found that her perception of the outfit began to shift. Fueled by vivid memories of those who had gone into battle before her in this dress, her disappointment and trepidation were replaced by a powerful feeling of pride and identification with her long-dead comrades, and more significantly, with the past leaders of her race. A bold ripple of courage quickened her heart. There would be no refuge within a metal shell now; everything that she was, virtually every part of her, was proudly proclaimed--open and on display. In this, she thought, I am truly a Taarakian.
Taarna turned toward the rose-colored circle and bowed her head. The time for reconciliation had come. Time to obtain a blessed release--to relinquish the tight constriction in her heart, to extinguish the smoldering embers of anger that she had stoked for years. She closed her eyes and the prayer came shooting up from deep within her, free of distraction.
Lord, I am sorry. Sorry that I blamed you for Kanei's and Cynane's death; sorry that I condemned you for the loss of my kinsmen. I know that you are love, and that from you no evil can come. I was a fool to think otherwise, wrong to have abandoned my faith in you. I disown what I have said to you in my heart. I know that your ways are not my ways; that there must be some meaning to all of this that I cannot perceive. I was wrong to have cut myself off from you. How I missed you. I need you now more than ever. You are all that I have. You are, Lord, all that I ever had, and in my blindness and pain I did not remember that. I do not know what will happen to me, but please, give me your grace; grant me your strength.
A great emotional burden left her. Silently she wept.
Taarna opened her eyes to a voice, deep and sonorous, which filled the chamber. She trembled at the sound of it. "To defend . . . this is the Pact. But when life loses its value, and is taken for naught, then the Pact is . . . to avenge."
The circle mysteriously changed from dull stone to a bright, bluish white light, making her breath catch in her throat. Glowing on the floor before her, its strange surface seemed to become liquid, and rapidly changed to a deep, rich blue. Abruptly the surface was broken by the emerging pommel of a sword which, with a grating sound, rose slowly upwards. It possessed a perfectly straight, sharp blade. Ripples flowed outwards from it, and silver webs of fluid dripped from its curved cross-guard.
Eyes wide and heart pounding, her mouth a thin grim line, Taarna knelt on one knee and grasped the Sword of Taarak. To her pull the blade came free with a thrilling zing of tempered steel. Standing, she held the hilt with both hands and raised it slowly above her head, as ritual demanded. Above her, unseen, the statue glowed. She sensed something behind her, a terrifying gathering of force which made the hair on her body rise in a prickling sensation.
Lightning sprang from the statue's sword to the tip of hers, causing the blade to glow with blue-white light, and a tremendous pulse of energy strummed through the weapon. Her body shuddered and her legs flexed. A corona of light appeared around the blade. The room turned white and she snapped her eyes closed, but still light pervaded her vision. Simultaneously the silence was shattered by a deafening thunderclap. The sword became an enormous tuning fork in her hands, throbbing and alive. She felt her hair lift from her shoulders and swirl violently about her head. Across the hall, Alata turned his head away in fear.
The thunderclap became a continuous roar. She opened her mouth and tried to breathe, but found it impossible; the air was being sucked out of her lungs.
The event crescendoed to a climax. She hardly thought it possible, but the light grew brighter and the sound increased to an almost unbearable level. Taarna felt as if she was being gripped by a giant, invisible hand, pulled stiff and taut by the sword. At a point when she feared she might simply fly apart, the energy suddenly departed in an expanding, wave-like burst. The sound reverberated through the air and then ceased, her hair fluttered back, and the room grew dark, once again illuminated solely by the shafts of natural sunlight. The floor before her was again plain stone. But the agitated ripples on the pool's surface silently attested to the power that had just been infused into the weapon now in her hands.
Taarna lowered the sword unsteadily and took a deep breath to regain control of her respiration. White circles lingered in her retinas. Her ears were ringing, her hands and forearms tingled fiercely, and her legs felt weak. For a brief time she thought she might faint, but the moment passed.
Taarna's heart leapt with joy. The Sword had risen! She scarcely believed it, yet it had happened: the proof was in her hands. And what had just occurred--in the entire history of the Taarakian race, such an event had never been recorded. She did not understand it, but it did not matter--she accepted it on the strength of her faith. She fell to her knees in utter obeisance.
She held the sword before her and looked at it with amazement. It was like a dream, to be holding the weapon that had been wielded centuries ago by the founder of her race. The sword was quite plain, with a smooth metal hilt, and a simple, golden crossguard. The blade was flawless--perfectly balanced and weighted, razor-sharp. There was not a nick or a scratch on it. It fit into its scabbard like a hand fits a glove.
Suddenly Alata was with her, alighting on the pedestal, opening his beak and emitting a loud screech. He behaved like Taarna now felt: spiritually renewed, full of life and energy; courageous. With a quick movement she was into the saddle, and without direction the animal turned and launched himself into flight. He skimmed a few feet over the broad ramp she had ascended only a few minutes, but now what seemed like hours, ago. Together they flew rapidly over the water, slipped through the portal, and the bird pulled them strongly up, up toward the sun far above.