With all the clarity of a dream; the sky so blue, the grass so green; the rank and file and navy blue, the deep and strong, the straight and true...

--Dire Straits, Iron Hand

fter breakfast Taarna traversed a modest, barren courtyard which separated the house from a stable. To her left rose the steep face of the mountain upon which the home had been constructed. To her right was a high stone wall, divided by a gate in which stood two sturdy metal doors, bolted from the inside. On the other side of the wall the mountain fell steeply away, and a narrow path wound down its face to the valley below.

She smiled upon seeing Alata. Her bird thrust his head out of the top half of the large stable door to greet her. Including his crest, he was taller than her by about a foot. His large green eyes watched her intently. He shook his head and bucked against the lower door, head and beak bobbing excitedly, eager for release. She stroked the creature's head, then unlatched the gate and led him by the halter out of the stall. Alata stretched his tan-colored wings gratefully, revealing an impressive wingspan of forty to fifty feet. The wind blew the small puffs of dust stirred by his formidable talons across the ground. She tied him to a post standing in the middle of the courtyard, and he bent his head low and drank from an adjacent trough, dark tongue darting rapidly out from his half-open beak to lap up the water.

Fondly petting the animal's neck and admiring his sleek lines, Taarna briefly reflected on her childhood experience with her first bird. Her parents had given her one when she was seven years old. It had been a mature, well-trained female, light gray in color. She had already been receiving lessons, and her mother had concluded that she was ready to ride every day and assume the responsibility of caring for her own bird.

Her grandfather had passed away in the same season. When she had asked her mother where he had gone, her mother had come to her, taken her hand, and pointed up to the cloud-filled sky. "He is up there, with God now," she had responded solemnly. Taarna did not say anything--congenital paralysis of the vocal cords had left her mute from birth--but she had shielded her eyes and scanned the heavens, searching fruitlessly for some sign. Finding none, she had decided to look for her grandfather when she became confident riding her bird alone. She had urged it to climb higher and higher into the sky, above the cloud layers, higher than she had ever gone before. She flew so high that it became cold despite the heat at the ground, and she could no longer see the details of any objects below; high enough that there was nothing above her but the sun. The bird tried gamely to follow her lead, but eventually, no matter how hard it tried, it could gain no further height, and she feared that it was becoming exhausted. So she had reluctantly permitted it to descend. In her childish way she had been disappointed to find neither God nor her grandfather.

Taarna went into the stable to replenish the bird's food and replace his bedding. A passageway ran across the front length of the stable, which had been divided into thirds: two stalls at either end, and another room for equipment and supplies in the middle. The far stall was empty and swept clean, its door to the courtyard locked. Two saddles rested in racks in the middle room. One was covered with a dusty tarp.

After completing the stable chores, she returned to the house and entered the largest chamber, which was open to the courtyard through three tall, adjacent arches. Its ceiling disappeared into the shadows twenty feet above the floor. It was approximately fifty feet long and thirty feet wide. At one end of the room a large circle had been carved into the stone floor. A pell stood in the middle of the other end of the room, a lonesome pillar heavily scarred from years of use.

She was a Taarakian warrior. Since the age of five she had been trained in the martial skills which were the hallmark of the Taarakian race and the cornerstone of its culture. This room was the heart of her home and life. Numerous weapons and armor--swords, axes, halberds, bills, pikes, pole-axes, spears, bows, maces, helmets, and shields--hung from the far wall. After stretches and a warm up, she selected a sword from a rack and proceeded to the pell.

For centuries, since the time of Taarak himself, the Taarakians had flourished through the consummation of pacts with city-states. The pacts bound them to defend their clients in times of attack in exchange for food, land, and social status. These arrangements afforded the municipalities the ability to develop economically and politically without the burdens of raising, training, and maintaining large, expensive standing armies.

For the Taarakians, the duty to defend was not an arm's length contract. It was a moral obligation which undergirded the entire fabric of their religion, society and culture. It was, quite simply, a way of life. Defensive warfare was their sole purpose, the sine qua non of their existence.

The Taarakians eventually became a powerful warrior caste, honored and revered for their fighting qualities and strict adherence to duty. They never became sufficiently prolific, however, to safeguard large, politically unified territorial regions. Even if they had, political and territorial rivalry among the city-states prevented the establishment of a larger political order.

Eventually, the ranks of the Taarakians dwindled. A series of decade-long droughts triggered population shifts which disrupted the fragile political balance. As the availability of water diminished and caused the migrations of thousands of people, the cities began to fight among themselves over territorial claims to the most fertile lands, using forces raised from their own citizenry. This, in turn, broke the socio-economic order of the Taarakians as the feuding cities called upon them for help. A devastating downward spiral of social and economic strife and disease ensued as the cities, weakened by the fighting among themselves, also became increasingly vulnerable to the attacks of nomad peoples trying to find lands to sustain themselves. The Taarakian race splintered and withered, unable to withstand these manifold pressures. As a consequence of the capricious processes of fate, over time Taarna found herself--to her unfolding disbelief and bewilderment--in the unenviable position of being the last of her race.

The ignominious end of a long, painful decline had come on a rainy, overcast winter day when the last organized Taarakian force was defending the Hespian outpost at Cherook from the Lyssanians, a fierce tribe of foot soldiers from the wooded Deilant highlands. They were an old enemy, who for more than a generation had made infrequent forays into neighboring lands for slaves and booty. Taarna had learned from her father that the Taarakians had soundly defeated the Lyssanians in a campaign when he was a young man. But because the Taarakians restricted themselves to defensive warfare, a remnant of the Lyssanians had escaped destruction and returned to their forest home, there to increase their numbers and rebuild their strength.

The third and final day of battle at Cherook had unfolded with a solitary Taarakian regiment at half strength, aided by a small band of ill-trained, poorly-equipped Hespians. Versinger, who was acting as the Taarakian chieftain since the death of Cyanthes two days earlier, had chosen to post the bulk of his heavy infantry not at the outpost itself, but at a narrow gorge about half a mile to the southeast, through which the Lyssanians were expected to attempt passage based on reports of their whereabouts after the previous day's fighting.

Versinger had reached his decision after a long, contentious council of war with the remaining officer corps. The debate over whether to stand or retreat had continued well into the wee hours of the morning. The courageous decision to stay and fight was reached on the belief that the chosen ground would provide the best defense. Unfortunately, it was also based on the incorrect assumption that the Lyssanians lacked reinforcements.

Taarna had been riding Alata as part of the Taarakian cavalry. She wore her leather armor and a polished metal helmet with a silver vizor that concealed her face. Using her bow, she had spent the morning supporting the footmen in their breastworks.

For the lightly armored, winged cavalry it was deadly work, because the weather had proved adverse to flight. Fog, drizzle, and low-hanging clouds forced Taarna and her compatriots to attack from very low altitudes. This increased their exposure to Lyssanian bowmen, neutralizing the advantage the Taarakians enjoyed with their more powerful bows. Taarakian cavalry were brought down with alarming regularity.

Taarna had shot her last arrow into the neck of a burly Lyssanian sergeant and had brought Alata up into a rapid climb, seeking refuge in the clouds so they could fly down the gorge and back to Cherook to rearm. A view of the thin Taarakian line through her vizor had not inspired confidence: there were no reinforcements, the Hespian volunteers were wavering, and the Lyssanian soldiers were on the verge of breaching the hastily cut breastworks in several places. There the fighting was fiercest: Lyssanians clambering like ants over the fallen timber, and hand-to-hand melees with soldiers swirling and slipping in the mud, all to the cacophonous din war.

The mist had almost obscured her vision when she felt a sharp, jolting pain in her left arm, just above her leather gauntlet. A black-feathered arrow had completely pierced her forearm, passing through the muscle between her radius and ulna. The metal tip lodged in her leather jerkin, pinning her arm to her side but not injuring her thorax.

She continued on, slipping into the safety of the clouds and navigating briefly on her memory and orientation to the terrain. When the sound of battle faded, she brought Alata back down and flew hard and fast for the outpost. But to her surprise and dismay, she made a devastating discovery: the Lyssanians had split their forces, made a forced march during the night, and under cover of darkness had found an undefended path to Cherook. The palisades had been breached, and the lopsided contest between the masses of enemy troops and the few allies manning the fort was nearly over. Portions of the structure were burning, and she could only see six or seven Taarakian archers in the tower at the center. For them, the end was quite obviously near; the Lyssanians were setting fire to its base.

The enemy skirmish line outside the fort spied her almost at the same time that she saw them. Half a dozen or more archers quickly fired a hail of arrows at her. They were out of range, but clearly she could not get closer. She circled for a moment, angry and confused, before deciding that at least she could return to the mountain pass and warn Versinger so what remained of the regiment might be saved. But she had ridden for only a minute or two before encountering Taanis, a cavalry officer, headed for Cherook with an arrow in his stomach. He weakly signalled the terrible news: the line at the pass had collapsed; the fight was over.

Thus, through a combination of dwindling forces, bad weather, and poor intelligence, the last of the Taarakians were outmaneuvered, outgeneraled, and destroyed at Cherook. Nearly five centuries of Taarakian primacy had been brought to a close.

Since she had buried Taanis, despair had been her companion with increasingly frequency. More and more often, she had considered repudiating her oath, learning some marketable trade, and entering an obscure life among the urbanites. She knew that she was the only surviving member of a dead caste, and as such, her personal abilities seemed of little importance. Kraan, with whom the Taarakians had enjoyed their oldest ties, was the only city which continued to pay her a small stipend--she suspected more out of pity than anything else. Thus marginalized, Taarna sustained herself in an unhappy and tenuous fashion by hunting and hiring herself out to provide protection to local provincials, patrolling their property lines for interlopers. Trading with rustics for her basic necessities, she increasingly avoided going into the city precincts she had once enjoyed, and eventually stopped altogether.

In addition to despondency, confusion, and a sense of worthlessness, anger flared up within her with increasing frequency. She was angry with God, had come to hate Him for stripping away everything she had loved--her husband, her daughter, her race! Why? And why her? Her survival from Cherook had become a curse. What had she done to deserve being the last of her kind? There was no answer.

The anger fed on itself, she discovered, in a maddening kind of vicious circle as she blamed God for her ever-growing unhappiness and self-loathing. The bitter sense of betrayal spilled over to create a smoldering hostility toward the citizens of Kraan, an irrational belief that they were somehow to blame for her loss. There then followed a sense of shame for feeling this way about the people she was sworn to serve and defend.

Perhaps if she had merely been a hired mercenary, it would have been easy to simply walk away, but like her ancestors, Taarna's concept of self was rooted in a deeply engrained sense of duty. Consequently, after these periods of self-doubt, she had, with nagging uncertainty, re-embraced the only life she knew. Although she realized that it was almost ludicrous to continue thinking of herself as a warrior, she had a harder time imagining herself doing anything else.

Weapon in hand, she stood before the pell, relaxed, and assumed a high guard stance. She began to practice, as she had for years, striking blows in rapid succession, her movements fluid and flawless. In this, at least, she found solace. She and the sword became one in the grace and power of her exertions, and for a time--for a brief, blessed interval--she did not think about her troubles, did not dwell on the fact that she was alone in this house. Drilling by herself, a pale, flashing, solitary figure in the dim sparring chamber, she was at once both fearsome and wonderful to behold.

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