Tales of the Ailendar, Volume 7: Reflections at Sunset – Part 1

The cool hand of dusk spread across the evening sky. The heat of the day was waning, carried away by an unimpeded wind that roved the plains and rustled the brittle grass. Varta shivered, but her old cloak had long since fallen away, discarded on the aimless journey that was her final ride. Atha’s bulk kept her legs warm, but her exposed arms seemingly drank the chill from the air. She smiled, welcoming the ache in her old bones, and turned her face to the few stars bold enough to challenge the sinking sun. They danced like distant lanterns above her head, weaving intricate patterns that couldn’t be followed by someone who still possessed their full reason. In her delirium, she thought she could almost see where they were leading her…

Atha nickered softly as he stumbled. Varta braced for a tumble, but he righted himself and plodded on, his head hung low to the ground. She stroked and patted his sable neck. “Not long now, old son,” she murmured. “Then we can both rest.”

The elderly warhorse laid his ears back and snorted derisively, even as his gait wobbled again. Varta chuckled fondly at her mount. Two weeks into their last ride together, and Atha was as determined as ever to outrun death. Stubborn old beast. Veteran of a hundred battles. War hero. Companion.

To her surprise, tears stung her eyes even though she felt no sadness, only a pervasive wistfulness as memories rose from the depths of her mind to engulf the world. Reflection had become her sustenance these last few days. She hungered to understand, to truly see how it all connected together, before the stars drew her away.

Varta looked at them again, and the thought of lanterns drifting on the surface of a lake pervaded her mind.

Lanterns. Like the ones we lit at the Feast of Broken Arrows. The celebration of… what were we celebrating? I never paid enough attention then… but the drums. I remember the drums…

A heavy, pulsing beat surrounded her, accompanied by laughing voices that she could almost identify. She stood among a crowd of young tribesmen, a hide lantern in her hand and a horsehair headdress obscuring most of her raven locks. Dancing in rows, forming circles that whirled around other circles, other youths. Joining a multitude of hands, one after another. Strong hands that clung together in fellowship, respect and a shared joy.

Thalar was in the circle across from her. Swarthy, handsome Thalar, with a laugh like booming thunder when he was merry, and eyes as piercing as arrows when roused to anger. Her nyal, and the object of her desire. The dance drew them closer, and Varta reached out for him. When their hands met, she gripped just a little longer and smiled appreciatively. She saw him blink before the circles spun them away from one another.


Atha’s rough coat beneath her fingers was all that kept her anchored to the present. She saw Thalar clearly before her, just like she had later that night, the shadows cast by their lanterns caressing the strong lines of his face. He wore one of his thoughtful expressions, the same one that she’d tried to dispel when she placed her hand on his arm and drew close.

“My bow and sword serve your father, but I would have none but you command my heart.”

That girl’s voice, trying to sound like a woman, so full of confidence… was that truly her?

“Varta…” Thalar’s eyes looked down on her, and she saw the swirl of emotion within them that she’d missed as a youth: the quiet compassion, the formality and sense of duty. She’d only seen his affection back then, and that had been enough to convince her of her success.

“Take me in your arms, Thalar,” she said, curling her own around his waist. “Share this with me tonight—”

“No, Varta.” His hands closed around her wrists and halted her embrace. She remembered the incomprehension that descended on her as he carefully but firmly pushed her back. “What you think exists between us…” He shook his head with regret. “It isn’t meant to be.”

It was some manner of poor jest. She laughed at him as she tried to move around his arresting grip. “Your mouth speaks these words, but your eyes tell me a different story,” she challenged. “You care for me.”

“I do, very much,” Thalar agreed. “I count you as a dear friend, one that I would entrust my life to… but…”

But not my heart.

Through the eyes of her younger self, Varta watched Thalar’s handsome face struggle in that moment. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her, but she knew now that he couldn’t have given her what she demanded. His heart was already pledged to his duty as nyal. Though his union with Kessali wouldn’t happen for many years, he was already as good as married, and he would never contemplate violating his pledge or his honor. That same indomitability that drew her to him ensured that they could never be together.

A better nyal than any doja could wish to serve.

Her youthful self couldn’t see it. She ripped her wrists away from Thalar, sorrow and embarrassment unleashing a storm from her lips. She said things to him—she couldn’t remember what exactly—to hurt him the way she felt that he’d hurt her. His expression, so open and trusting, now blank and closed, as a gate seemed to shut behind his eyes. “This has always been your least flattering trait, Varta,” he stated flatly. “You think far too much of yourself.”

With a sigh, Varta stroked Atha’s coarse coat and gazed at the dimming horizon. “Yes, Thalar,” she whispered. “I did.”

And she would come to realize it fully soon. She would mope and rage for nearly three weeks, to the disappointment of her parents and instructors over such behavior, until, rebuked and alone, she awoke to how deep her arrogance and selfishness had run. Such discovery had been painful, but it gave her a drive to better herself. It propelled her to master archery and swordplay, hone her studies of warfare and uncover the talent for strategic and tactical thinking that would earn her the rank of doja-kan among her tribe.

The star lanterns stopped twirling as Varta’s throat went tight, recalling the ruthlessness her training had imprinted upon her and how her own natural fervor had sharpened it. She lifted trembling fingers to the leather armband encircling her left bicep. Every inch was covered with embossed symbols: arrows, swords, flowers, beasts of the field and birds of prey. Each was a mark of accomplishment, a bloody battle won, a skill mastered. The history of her life as a warrior, stamped in worn leather. Her fingertip traced the grooves of each symbol, one by one, and the weight of the memories bowed her back lower and lower.

Then she came to the scarred mark, the one scuffed in wrath by her nyalam, Hirthon, at her sentencing, meant to represent her failure. But she hadn’t failed. No, she’d done as Hirthon had commanded. She’d slaughtered scores of men, women and children that night, swiftly, efficiently. Almost with relish, for what they had done to Thalar.

Taking the watchmen unawares first, surrounding the village, waiting stone-faced in the darkness for any attempts to flee, issuing the command to close in… she remembered it all.

Screams rang in Varta’s ears, overlapping one another and drowning out the sounds of Atha’s hooves. They’d echoed in her mind for decades. In times past, she’d tried covering her ears to block them out, but it did no good. They were lodged in her mind forever, as if wailing and condemning her from beyond the grave was the only vengeance permitted to them. She felt the instinctual recoil from the memory, the same response she’d relied on to keep sane. But sanity was no longer the goal… tonight… tonight she would endure them as her rightful punishment.

As she leaned into the memories, images blurred into view to accompany the screams. She saw an enemy tribesman fleeing before her. He made the mistake of looking back, and she rode him down, bones cracking beneath Atha’s trampling hooves. He’d shouted in terror when he’d fallen, but was silent behind her. A woman dressed in loremaster’s garb skirted her vision, huddling among a cluster of tents. Varta seized her bow, nocked an arrow and took the woman between the shoulder blades, then jumped down and ended her life with a slash across the back as she tried to crawl away.

A baby’s cry drew Varta’s attention to a nearby tent. She plunged inside, her blade dripping blood as she ripped a blanket from a conspicuous bundle.

Kessali, curled up on the floor and clutching her infant son… Thalar’s infant son.

Varta moaned and buried her hands in Atha’s mane, seeking a reminder of the present as the memory of Kessali’s enormous, petrified eyes transfixed her. She screamed, her voice barely heard above the baby’s squalling, but the few words that reached Varta brought her sword’s descent to a halt.

“Mercy for the child of nyal Thalar!”