s they climbed high into the afternoon sky and headed towards the oasis, Taarna turned the bartender's words over in her mind. "Towards the green glow," he had said. What green glow? Was the enemy setting a fire? If so, what would burn to make such a light?

Studying the horizon, additional thoughts occurred to her. Why had the men looked so strange? Their yellowed eyes, their greenish skin . . . where were they from, and what had happened to them? Was there some association between their deathly appearance and the green glow?

These ponderings were subsumed by the more immediate question of how she was going to accomplish her mission. It was a dilemma she had been struggling with since she had been summoned.

If she found the barbarians, she could not simply fly in and start swinging. She could kill a handful of them, perhaps, but she would surely be overwhelmed and slain within a few minutes. Was this what was being asked of her? Such an approach would take courage, but it seemed clumsy and simple-minded.

But what were the alternatives? She could try to locate their camp surreptitiously and begin a campaign of stealth to kill them in one's or two's, but this also presented problems.

First, it was not easy to locate an opposing army without being detected by scouts or sentries. Anyone with even a rudimentary military mind would post pickets, and these barbarians also had bat-riding cavalry. They would make scouting with her bird very difficult.

Second, although the Sword of Taarak was extraordinary, it still required closure with an opponent. Limiting her attacks to one or two men at a time, however, would present few fruitful opportunities. And if she was unfortunate enough to encounter three or more men at one time, the odds against her would increase dramatically; she would likely be brought down by a crossbow or other missile.

Third, even if she successfully commenced such a campaign, the longer it went on, the more difficult it would be to sustain. She was by now far, far from her home. She lacked the supplies needed to sustain herself and her bird in the wilderness for an extended period. The enemy would heighten their security and consolidate their forces, making sniping attacks harder. They would also post scouts or pay spies to maintain watch at the local settlements, where she would likely go for food, water, and supplies. She would probably be able to keep attacks up for a few weeks or even a month, but eventually she would be caught and killed.

Thinking the problem over, she began to conclude that the only way to deal an effective blow to this enemy would be to get close to their commander and slay him. She was confident that this band had a leader; the systematic and total devastation of Kraan and its citizens almost certainly reflected the will of a single man. If she could identify the opposing chieftain and kill him, it might effectively disband the group. Perhaps this was the key.

Whether she attempted a direct, open attack or used stealth, however, it was unlikely that she would be able to identify the leader and get close to him while armed. An open assault precluded identification. An approach under concealment might make identification possible, but presented few chances of getting at the leader with a sword.

The futility of trying to solve this insolvable problem at last caused her to face a thought that had been lingering in the back of her mind: it was very likely that she would not survive this effort. She was probably going to die, plain and simple. She had not wanted to contemplate it; indeed, had avoided thinking about it. But any way that she looked at it, to find and destroy the barbarian chieftain by herself was such an imposing task that it almost certainly would entail her own death.

Confronting the notion of her own death upset her greatly. She would not swerve from her duty, but she considered herself young and had a strong instinct for survival, having struggled through more than her share of war and death. She wanted to live.

The impotency Taarna felt from her inability to discern a suitable course of action, combined with the seemingly inescapable conclusion of her death, caused tears of frustration to well up in her eyes. Her vision doubled, then blurred, and her eyes stung in the wind. She wiped the tears away angrily, despising the feeling of weakness, but she knew she was not in the right frame of mind to do anything. So, frustrated and discouraged, she abruptly urged Alata down. They landed in a narrow, rocky ravine. The bird looked at her uncomprehendingly as she tied him to a withered tree root.

Feeling desperately alone and in need of help, she angrily drew the Sword from its scabbard and thrust it sharply into the parched earth. Kneeling before it, she carefully grasped the blade and rested her forehead on the crossguard. She closed her eyes to the soothing coolness of the steel.

Facing the most serious challenge of her life, Taarna prayed fervently. Tears continued to run down her cheeks, but she ignored them. She asked many questions: I understand my duty, but how? Who is this enemy, and how can I defeat him? What do You want of me? How can I know and accomplish Your will? What happened in the Sanctuary? Why did I receive this weapon? Am I going to die?

After a time, Taarna's questioning ended. The tears from her closed eyes ceased; her throat no longer felt swollen and hot; her breathing became slow and regular. The wind blew softly through the faded rushes and her hair rustled about her face, comforting her. Her mind grew quiet and still. Motionless she drifted, listening in silence and searching for her faith. And finally, in the dark center of her innermost being, an answer came:

Daughter, I love you; I claim you as my favored one. Do not be fearful or discouraged, for I shall be with you; I shall not fail or forsake you. Be strong, be resolute, and a path shall be there; unto you it shall be a straight way. You will know when to use the gift I have given you; for my light within you will dispel the darkness, and you will glorify my name.

Taarna rested, contemplating these words in the depths of her heart. After a time, she stood and resheathed the sword. Be resolute and choose a straight path, he had said. So be it.

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