Tales of the Ailendar, Volume 7: Reflections at Sunset – Part 2

Varta’s breath came in deep, heavy pants. She stared down at the bedraggled young woman, thinking she must’ve been a nurse for the infant, seeking shelter behind her charge. Varta barked at the cringing woman to hand the child over, but she cried out and begged not to be separated from her son.

Varta hadn’t wanted to believe it. Surely this waif couldn’t have been Thalar’s wife. A nyal of his prowess deserved a woman of strength, not a thin, trembling girl. Someone to match the force of his spirit, someone like…

The girl spoke, and for some reason, Varta listened, holding her sword in striking position like a harbinger of doom because to sheath it would have felt unnatural. The mother babbled in fear, her gaze glued to Varta’s bloodstained blade, but her words never contradicted, and the more she spoke, the more Varta believed. She talked of Thalar and their short life together, in words no woman outside of a wife would possibly say. She spoke of the misfortune that felled him, and her sobs were of loss, not of fear. She presented the bawling infant to Varta, and not even her terror could erase the pride in her eyes.

“His name is Rathar,” she said, tears streaming from her large, dark eyes. “Please, doja. Please… have mercy.”

Varta lowered her sword and took it in her other hand so that she could touch the infant’s scrunched brow. His piercing cries filled the tent, displaying his strong lungs and powerful voice to all within earshot. A fitting son to a father like Thalar.

“What is your name?” Varta demanded, locking her own tears away behind a tight jaw.

“Kessali,” the young woman replied meekly.

Meek, but made of enough steel to withstand Varta at the height of her rage, to reveal painful truths under threat of death without deceit or embellishment. The kind of woman that would have filled Thalar’s heart and made the days before his death joyful.

Varta stroked the scoring on her armband and cried. Yes, it was a mark of failure, but not the failure nyalam Hirthon had condemned her for. “Forgive me, Kessali,” she told the memories dancing before her. “Forgive me… for failing you and your son.”

In sorrow and weariness, Varta’s head drooped to her chest. The sun slid yet further into the distance, but she couldn’t bring herself to face the multiplying stars again. She sagged against Atha’s neck, never quite passing from consciousness, but engulfed by a fitful lethargy. Cold winds clawed her exposed skin, tugged at her gray-streaked hair. Atha’s faint, rhythmic pulse throbbed against her cheek and soothed the worst of her waking nightmares. She patted his knotted shoulder and let her eyes close…

The pulse faltered. The gently rocking world beneath Varta lurched with a weak squeal, and the ground striking her body jolted her awake. She was face first in the grass, her right shoulder and side aching, and the sound of labored breathing coming from behind.

“Atha,” she murmured and pushed herself up. The old warhorse lay on his side, legs splayed haphazardly, eyes half closed. She laid a gentle hand against his neck, feeling his pulse waver and stutter. He released a long, feeble whinny, and his legs twitched.

The pain was stark in his voice, and Varta cried as she cradled his head with her arms, stroking his muzzle and kissing the soft nose. Atha gave another weak nicker, as if scolding her for her show of affection. “Oh, be quiet, you grumpy, old beast,” she chided, smiling at him through her tears. “I told you it wouldn’t be long.”

In truth, he’d lasted longer than any warhorse she’d known, and a surge of pride swelled in her chest over her boon companion. For thirty years, he had carried her faithfully, in battle and in life. Even now, she could feel the struggle in him to get back on his feet, to push through the pain and walk on. “Hush, old son,” she said, resting a hand against his flank. “It’s enough.”

Atha’s belly filled shallowly with his slow breathing against Varta’s touch. She continued to murmur reassurances as she reached for her sword’s hilt, ready to relieve the last of his pain. As her fingers closed around the leather grip, he gave a last, gentle whinny and was still.

“Just like you,” she said into the lonely silence, her words choking as grief overtook her. “Refusing to let anyone ease your burdens…” She moved to Atha’s back and draped her arm over him, crying into his dusty coat. “Goodbye, old friend.”

Varta knew they wouldn’t be separated for long. Her knees wobbled as she stood, her feet feeling like she wore stone boots. Her head swam with dizziness and exhaustion, and she barely made it three steps before she stumbled. She looked back at Atha’s motionless body and decided that here was as good a place as any to wait for the inevitable. “You picked a fine spot, old son,” she praised, crawling back over to him and leaning against his still-warm back. “Well done. As always.”

The one-sided, rambling conversation continued, and Varta turned her face to the sky once more. Rosy blushes were all that could be seen of the horizon, but a host of star lanterns still danced overhead. The horse’s body grew cold, and the wind roughed over her like a frolicking pup, heedless of the cares of the world beneath. Trying to suppress a shiver, she drew her arms close together. Her idle fingers found the armband again and traced the symbols unconsciously.

So many battles. A lifetime of warfare, with only brief windows of peace in between. A life befitting a doja-kan, but there was more to the disparate tribes of the Mieram than fighting. “I tried to make Hirthon understand… didn’t I, Atha?” She half-turned her face toward the dead horse, but he gave no answer. “I did my best. But he couldn’t see. He didn’t want to know the true potential of the people he led.”

Varta remembered the day they faced one another in final battle. The siege had finally broken the Stronghold, as the starving, desperate tribesmen stumbled from the gates for their last charge, knowing that they rushed to their doom, but determined to fulfil the last orders of their nyalam. Varta had been torn between admiration for their conviction and pity for their blind devotion. She watched stone-faced as they refused any offer of surrender, responding with clumsy sword thrusts and stray arrows.

“They have made their choice,” she’d told her dojas. “End their misery and liberate our people.”

Hirthon, as driven to madness as any of them, was barely able to stand as he faced Varta in the courtyard before his headquarters. His cheeks were hollow, his skin gray with hunger, and foam flecked his lips. He sliced and struck at enemies that weren’t there before her men surrounded him, but somehow, he picked her out of the crowd, his expression darkening with hatred. “Come to beg mercy at last, betrayer?” he snarled. “Had your fill of losing this war? Expect none from me!” His blade chopped through the air several feet in front of her, and he fell to his knees in the mud.

“It is over, kin-slayer,” one of her commanding dojas growled and advanced on the raving nyalam. “Justice will be done!”

“Peace, Nevath,” Varta called to him. “Justice has already been done. Our enemies’ backs are broken, and the Stronghold is ours. Now…” She looked down at her greatest enemy and shook her head. “We will show our mercy.”

“I told you!” Hirthon shrieked, his eyes roving madly. “You will have none. Mercy is for the weak!”

“Will you submit?” she pressed, trying to speak as slowly as possible in the hopes that something, anything would penetrate the fog engulfing the broken nyalam’s mind. “Will you surrender your authority to the victors, as tradition demands?”

High-pitched laughter broke from Hirthon’s lips, and he answered her question with another wild sword-thrust.

“You are as much a danger to yourself as to those around you, Hirthon,” Varta informed him sadly. “It should never have come to this.”

“This is the fate of all who disobey my orders,” Hirthon rasped. “Taste your death at the end of my blade—”

Two swift strides brought Varta to within striking distance. She knocked his blade aside with her own, cutting off his tirade as she drove him to the ground. Hirthon scrabbled in the mud like a pig, and Varta kicked the sword from his hand. His lips pulled back from his teeth, his hands clawing at her leg. Another kick had him on his back. She raised her blade and stabbed down, directly over his heart. The worn leather of Hirthon’s jerkin parted beneath the thrust, and his anger melted into a look of confusion as his thrashing ceased.

“In death lies the forgiveness you refused to grant your daughter and grandson,” Varta intoned, and pulled her sword from his still corpse. “May Thalar and Kessali rest easy with your passing.” She turned to find her dojas kneeling before her, their hands crossed over their chests. “There will be none of that,” she ordered roughly. “Up, all of you.”

“But… my nyalam—”

“I am doja-kan Varta, and I am fit for naught else! Now, on your feet! There is still work to be done.”

Her chuckles faded into the starlit plains. “They wanted me to be nyalam, Atha. Me. Can you imagine? Argued for so long when I told them a doja-kan would make a bad ruler.” She absently patted the still, black flank. “The way we’ve always done it, they said. Yes… but it didn’t have to be. Such a way had led to Hirthon. Could be better…”

A new era for the Mieram. That was what they’d called it. To never know another war of that magnitude… to never have tribes slaughtering each other for perceived slights. They’d called her Varta the Wise, Varta the Peacebringer… in the end though, they were wrong. All she’d ever done… all she’d ever devoted her life to, was forging a nation worthy of her service. Arrogant even to the end…

Varta smiled.

The chill was fading from her bones. All around her, the world grew warm and misty. The star lanterns wheeled and spun above her head, drawing lines that traced a path to a horizon in the sky. She reached out to it, and a caress of warm air, like the breath of a lover, touched her cheek.

“I think… it’s time to go home, Atha.”