Oh, Preem, Judger of men, we save those most wicked for you. Take the flesh and soul of this condemned man whose offenses deserve your divine cruelty. ~ Nurati prayer of execution
After six days, Amar and his group approached the Temulanka Domain through its wild borderlands along the Nurati Domain. Subdued by the afternoon heat, the men were silent and daydreaming until Onja abruptly stopped her horse. She looked north across the landscape like a fox that has heard a mouse in the grass. She told them to follow.
Her course took them into rough land, and their horses sweated on an incline among thinning trees. They came out onto a windswept ridge that offered a wide view. Ahead rose a blocky weathered butte formed from the withered heart of a mountain exposed by eons of elements. Above it wheeled carrion birds.
Onja rushed them onward across a shallow brushy canyon. They splashed through a tiny stream, lazy in the late the summer. Flies hovered the water and bothered the men and horses.
When they reached the butte, Onja found man-made steps. She slid from the slick back of her horse and danced up three steps before noticing that the men had not moved. Amar and the others recognized now what the place must be. Kym was the first to protest.
“We must not go up there,” he told her. “It is a sky temple to the God Preem, Judger of men. The birds are the eyes of Preem. We invite his judgment to approach.”
From the base of the butte, the carrion birds could not be seen, but Onja saw them in her mind’s eye. Fear of judgment from some human God troubled her not at all.
“Will you come, Amar?” she asked.
Inside he wavered, but Onja’s request superseded his fear of the Gods. He dismounted and then looked questioningly to his new Kez brothers. They seemed much less intimidating now that he saw them cowed by superstition. Cybar then surprised him by getting off his horse. The memory of Onja’s magic on his lip emboldened him.
Onja and the two men ascended the butte. On top seven old oaks grew in a wide circle. Juvenile trees and sproutlings were scattered in the shade of the gnarled giants. Within the ring of oaks, stood a ring of bluntly cut blocks of stone that, despite their colossal size, had obviously been erected by human hands. Onja recognized in the monoliths the blue stone of her mountains. She was mildly offended to see a portion of her homeland dragged by humans to this lonely spot.
Three vultures hunkered on standing stones and crows clattered in the trees. Amar and Cybar watched the birds warily as they entered the rings of trees and stones.
At the center of the sky temple, a horizontal altar stone was angled to the west so that the worst of the afternoon sun would beat down upon it. A wretched man was chained to the altar. He writhed weakly and tried to shoo away the crow perched on his thigh. The bird flapped and danced between his legs and chest. Exhausted, the man rested after his futile fit, and the crow settled on his stomach and continued to shred his ragged linen shirt. He moaned.
Onja stopped with her companions several paces back from the altar. Inside the ring, faces were carved into the stones. Their expressions alternated between laughing mirth and stern disappointment. Beyond the ring of stones, Onja took in the breathtaking view of wooded foothills with her beloved Rysamand rising over them. Benign white clouds cast their shadows across the forests as if the sky caressed the land. The grand landscape was beautiful and utterly heedless of the pathetic suffering figure dropped within it. The shadow of a circling vulture crossed his torso.
“Why has this been done?” Onja whispered to Amar.
He answered that he had heard of sky temples as a place for punishing criminals. Preem delivered judgment, usually with the carrion birds.
Transfixed by the suffering man, Cybar added, “Not every criminal is executed so ceremoniously. He must have given great offense to the Gods and his tribe.”
Amar said, “I have heard that the Nurati Tribe honors Preem more than others. This elaborate sky temple seems to prove it. I think their capital is close to here.”
The crow upon the harshly judged man tossed aside an unappetizing scrap of cloth and pecked at the man’s abdomen. He screamed and flopped in his chains. The bird ripped a jagged bloody tear in the man’s flesh. Blood oozed slowly from his dehydrated body. The other watchful birds cheered their brother, and two more crows flew over to the altar.
Amar drew his good sword and approached the altar. Onja followed him, captivated by everything she beheld. Cybar trailed them, stalling fearfully. Amar waved the birds away from the altar with his sword. The tormented man squinted into the sun. Amar, silhouetted by the brightness, was fuzzy to his bloodshot eyes. He tried to speak, but his dry thirsty throat barely made a sound better than the coarse crows.
Cybar called to Amar, “His life is for Preem. You must not interfere.”
Amar studied the man on the altar. His brown skin glowed red from the burning sun. His lips were cracked and darkly clotted. His chin length black hair with a deep widow’s peak was dirty and stringy, and blisters mottled his forehead, nose and cheeks. He had only been left clothed in a linen tunic and loin cloth and his bare legs showed the wounds of many probing pecks.
Upon hearing voices, the condemned tried again to speak. “Mercy,” he groaned. “Mercy. I do not deserve this.”
“Amar, we must go,” Cybar insisted. “Do not give him swift death.”
Amar had initially thought to end the man’s suffering with a merciful blow, but now that he looked at him, he changed his mind.
“I would free him,” he said.
“Preem will punish you,” Cybar warned.
Amar dismissed the threat of Preem’s ire. “I seek no forgiveness for anything that I have done. One more thing will not matter,” he said and then looked to Onja, seeking her opinion.
She came beside the altar. “Free him,” she concurred.
The bronze chains that draped the altar were old and corroded, but still firm enough to restrain a tortured man. Amar found a particularly weak link and smacked it with his sword. Three strokes and the link broke. Amar pried the link apart and then pulled the chains off the loop set into the stone.
The condemned man watched Amar with amazement. The young wanderer bore no resemblance to anyone he knew and he certainly lacked the appearance of a Nurati. With the chains loose from the rock, Amar looked at the manacles on the man’s wrists and ankles.
“I can get those off him,” Onja said.
The condemned man turned his head toward her lovely voice. “Sweet lady….” he started to say in a voice as rough as split logs but then he stopped. He did not understand what he saw. He fainted when her eyes began to glow with blue fire.
The bolts of the manacles softened as Onja precisely heated them. Amar pulled the manacles open and freed the man’s limbs. Amar gathered the limp man into his arms. He was slight of build, and Amar was able to place him over a shoulder. The man smelled terribly, and Amar turned his face away from his wretched body.
Cybar had retreated outside the ring of stones. From the shade of an oak he watched Amar approach with the unconscious man. Cybar shook his head insistently. “Put him back,” he advised urgently.
Onja tugged on Amar’s sleeve to stop him. “He truly fears what you have done,” she commented.
“He will get over it,” Amar said, unconcerned about Cybar’s opinion.
“The others truly fear this sky temple,” she said.
“The Gods are to be feared, Onja,” Amar replied matter-of-factly. “You are born. You die. The Gods are always there.”
She contemplated his simple words and then asked, “But you do not fear your Gods, Amar?”
Amar would have shrugged if he had not been burdened with a stinking half-dead man. “I do not care,” he said and continued toward Cybar.
Onja lingered in the sky temple and studied the faces carved in the stones. Their blank eyes now looked at her invitingly, welcoming her into their mysterious club.
So simple, she thought.
She set a hand on a monolith. The stone had been cut from the Rysamand and somehow the humans had dragged it up this butte. The effort that must have taken astounded her. So very strange that the humans would work so hard for something that benefited them not at all. Most of them lived in little huts and enjoyed no luxuries. Why did they not put their efforts toward making better shelters for everyone?
Onja looked at the men under the oak tree. Amar had set the man down in the shade and was dripping water onto the man’s ragged lips. Cybar frowned over them with worry.
There is power in fear, Onja realized.
A crow flapped over her head and landed on the nearest monolith. He squawked at Onja irritably, apparently blaming her for the removal of the sacrifice. She looked up at the impertinent bird. He turned his head and regarded her closely with a perfect black eye that glistened with intelligence. Onja shifted her attention entirely to the sentience radiating from the shiny black bird. Her wondrous mind that knew no bounds connected with the bird’s alien awareness.
“Yes, I took your prize. Forgive me this once, and I will make it up to you,” she told him mentally.
Utterly surprised by the communication, the crow tucked his dark beak against his feathery chest and peeked at her shyly. Onja lifted a blue hand and invited him gently with a twitch of her white-nailed fingers.
The crow looked back at his mates that were strutting across the altar stone, complaining among each other. Tentatively the crow on the monolith opened his wings, and, after one more encouraging gesture from Onja, flapped down to her hand. His feet dug into her skin but did not pierce her flesh. She stroked his neck and purred to him lovingly.
“You shall have to tell me your name someday,” she told him.
He squawked and took to the air. He landed in the oak tree over the men tending the victim plucked from Preem’s justice. Onja watched the indentations left in the skin of her hand fade before she joined her companions.
Amar made Cybar help him carry the man down the steep steps of the butte. The other men were distressed at Amar’s audacious theft from Preem.
But Amar scolded them, “We claim to be brother outlaws yet you would leave one to the judgment of the law-abiding. Whatever this man did, he is one of us now.”
Delirious, the man moaned and turned his head from side to side on the ground. He was grizzled, sunburned, and filthy. His body was thin and his hands were soft. Clearly he was no laborer.
Amar said, “I think this man has some quality.”
They took him to the little stream in the canyon and washed him. The cool water roused him from his burning torment, and he drank greedily, which made him retch. Amar rolled him away from the bank so that he could no longer slurp like a mad animal.
Clearly the group was not going to travel more that day, and Vame gathered firewood. While Amar nursed the man, Cybar answered questions from Kym and Vame about the sky temple. His Kez brothers often glanced warily at the quiet butte. The circling vultures were drifting away. Preem’s servants would go unpaid today. A debt perhaps that would not be forgotten.
Onja sat apart from everyone, cross-legged upon a boulder at the edge of the stream. She stared toward her mountains, lost in intense thought.
Kym eventually stood over Amar and the man that had been rescued.
“Amar, the priests of Preem might notice that the vultures disappeared when they should have thickened in the sky,” Kym said.
“Priests are slow. We’ll move on in the morning. Do not worry, Kym,” Amar said.
“Your accursed pet will not be able to travel so soon,” Kym said.
Amar’s dark eyes flashed up at the Kez warrior. “I do not fear Nurati priests who chain people and leave them for animals,” Amar said. “This man will ride with me.”
Kym shook his head because Amar puzzled him continually. “Why do you want this man? He’ll certainly make no warrior for Vu. I don’t think he could steal a bowl of porridge to save his life.”
Amar wetted a rag and wiped the man’s forehead. “He might have knowledge and rare skills. Warriors aren’t everything,” he said.
Kym scratched the back of his head, where his stubble was starting to grow in. “I suppose the Nurati are known for scholarship,” Kym granted. He squatted next to the thin wretched man and studied him. “Yes, yes, definitely a Nurati nose. What’s your name, Nurati criminal?” Kym asked.
The man’s eyes were half closed. His lips moved as if he might answer, but the effort to speak seemed to be too much. Amar dribbled at little more water into his mouth and said, “I am Amar. Who are you?”
“Amar,” the man whispered back and his long black lashes lifted. His crusty eyes were craters in a skull covered by tight skin. “I am Urlen.”
“Urlen,” Amar repeated. He liked the name. “What was your crime?”
Urlen shut his eyes as if the answer was difficult to recall. “No crime,” he said. “I did what was right.”
Kym chuckled. “Maybe he is a proper criminal.”
Amar moved Urlen to where Vame was busy arranging kindling. Even in the balmy summer dusk, Urlen shivered and he leaned gratefully over the fire once it was burning. Amar boiled some oats and added a generous dose of salt to the gruel. Urlen ate it with trembling hands.
Amar and his companions sat in a circle, eating and watching their newest companion. As the Nurati regained a scrap of vitality, he observed his liberators. Their speech was understandable but he could not pinpoint the origin of their dialect. Upon recognizing their hair style, he realized whose company he was keeping.
“How many days were you up there?” Amar asked.
Urlen scooped another blob of gruel into his mouth with his fingers. “This was the second day,” he said. “I am in your debt, and I thank you.” He spoke to Amar and nodded politely to the others.
After a few more mouthfuls, Urlen made himself pause in his eating. His stomach hurt. Sighing, he said, “I was almost dead. I even dreamed a woman was there. Perhaps the blessed virgin Opeti is real after all and came to me in my need.”
The men around the fire smiled as if sharing a secret joke. Amar pointed upstream. Urlen squinted and then for the first time he noticed the female figure seated on the rock.
“No,” he breathed in disbelief. Then he squinted again. Something was strange. Despite being near death, he had not really believed in the presence of the virgin Goddess Opeti that women prayed to for security. But Urlen, even suffering from near sightedness, knew that not just any woman sat nearby.
“A rys,” Amar explained. “She helped set you free.”
“So the tales are true…” Urlen said. “Is she from the Tymelo Mountains?”
Amar nodded and then explained the proper name of the mountains. He then offered to introduce Urlen to her. With difficulty Urlen got to his feet and had to hunch over Amar’s arm like an old man.
Helping him along, Amar whispered, “You will respect her.”
“Yes, Amar, of course,” Urlen pledged.
Onja looked over her shoulder. The hobbling Nurati was overcome by the sight of her and dropped to his knees. Onja unfolded her shapely bare legs and slid down from the boulder. Her blue body radiated feminine beauty. Her black hair tumbled around her face and neck, black as a night thick with secrets.
“I am Onja,” she said. And then with a gentle smile, she added, “Amar’s friend.”
Amar glowed with appreciation. It was so good to be in her company.
“I am your servant,” Urlen said.
She walked around Urlen, sizing him up. Looking down on his wet head, she asked him why he had been condemned to die.
Although fragile and beaten, Urlen withered even more. Some tragic weight yoked him with choking injustice.
“It makes so little sense to me that I can hardly say the words,” Urlen said.
“We will not judge you,” Amar said sincerely.
Urlen looked doubtfully at his savior. He supposed that heinous crimes would not shock this young but hardened outlaw, yet he feared that his crime might not be excused.
But with Onja’s magical eyes bearing down on him, Urlen knew that he would speak only the truth. He coughed and then began his tale.
“I was respected and encouraged most of my life. As a boy I showed an aptitude with letters and I never grew bored among the scrolls. I would travel to every town and seek all the scholars and scribes so that I could learn more of reading and writing.
“So much knowledge I found rolled up in fabric and skin, lovingly stowed in wooden tubes. The wonder of it always made me want more. By my thirteenth year, I was making my own living copying scrolls for the aging word masters. My family was proud of me. I improved the home of my aging parents. Even my older brothers, so much taller and stronger than me, were proud of me.
“I studied hard and trained myself to letter with skill, art, and clarity. To read my script was to be a pleasure, I thought, but I also took seriously how important it was to preserve the knowledge. It seemed like a magic to me.”
Urlen paused and glanced at Onja, expecting her to comment but she remained patiently silent.
In a tentative tone, Urlen said, “I read once that your kind is magic.”
“What you have read is correct,” Onja said. “Continue.”
Urlen wished he had skin and ink now so he could interview her and record her responses. That would be a scroll of incredible value.
He licked his cracked lips and Amar kindly fetched him the water skin. Even a few words had already dried Urlen’s mouth.
After a drink, Urlen said, “In time, my talent earned me a place in the court of the Nurati King. In my twenty-fifth year, I became chief scribe to my King. Such an honor for such a young man. Life at court was grand, and I was often allowed to travel to other domains in pursuit of my scholarship. In time my fame grew, and scholars came to visit me and view the library of which I was the master. Many candles burned low through many nights discussing history, nature, law, language, geography.”
Urlen sighed, remembering his heyday. Such prestige would never be his again. But to cheat Preem his due was also a great achievement. Urlen would be glad to write down that event.
“I had everything,” Urlen said. “But alas, no matter how I stimulated my mind, I remained a man of flesh. I came to know one of the daughters of my King. Isamahlia was her name and she was both fair and smart. But her intellect was a wicked joke of the Gods, trapped as she was in her woman’s body, banned from any scholarship. Yet, her woman’s body became my master.”
Fascinated by his story, Onja sat down and reclined onto an elbow. Urlen shifted off his knees and got more comfortable too. Since it seemed that it was going to be a longer story, Amar sat down as well. He could well imagine at this point what at least one of Urlen’s crimes had been.
From the nearby brush a crow squawked. Urlen flinched. Onja waved to the bird swaying on a flimsy perch. She told Urlen not to worry. He relaxed slightly, telling himself that he was free of the chains and the crows could bedevil him no more. With the crow now quietly among his listeners, he continued.
“It was an accident that I met Isamahlia. I suppose it is always an accident that starts such love stories. I was to be weeks away in the Domain of the Temulanka. I had been invited to lecture at a summer gathering of scholars, but my wagon broke down not long after my departure, and I came back to Telop, the Nurati capital, with my servants. My trip would be delayed only a day while I obtained another wagon.”
By now the other men had settled into an attentive circle around Urlen and Onja. A tranquil dusk descended upon the land. The sunlight softened toward the horizon and cool shadows spread beneath the trees. Several small flocks of birds, which earlier in the day had been so menacing to Urlen, crossed the turquoise sky seeking their roosts. Now the birds were beautiful and serene; their flight seeming to say that all was right in the world, at least at this moment.
The wonder of surviving the ghastly torture of the sky temple briefly overwhelmed Urlen. To have lived to see the gentle loveliness of even one more sunset was the most blessed mercy he could have imagined.
“Go on,” Onja prompted, impatient with his silence.
Urlen gathered his memories and said, “My breakdown was actually fortuitous for I had forgotten a scroll by Binn Bon on architecture. I wanted to take it to the gathering in order to argue that he had actually designed the amphitheater at Hespon and not Zebroh, who normally is credited as its designer. There has been some rather heated debate on this subject….” Urlen trailed off when he noted that the men looked annoyed with his tangent that was surely meaningless to them.
“Anyway, I returned unexpected to my library and found her there. Only one window was unshuttered and sunlight steamed through it. She sat in the light on the mosaic floor and held a scroll into the sunshine so that she could see it in the gloomy library that I had carefully buttoned up before leaving.
“Her tepa lay on the floor and her head was uncovered. Her black hair flowed around her shoulders with an amethyst twinkle in the golden light. I startled her and she looked up at me with guilty eyes.
“In her mad moment of being caught, she snapped the scroll behind her back, but knowing that her action was ridiculous, she brought it forth again and carefully rolled it up. Moving onto her knees, she held up the scroll to me and begged for my mercy. She pleaded for forgiveness and said that she had meant no harm. She begged me not to tell anyone, and then she could not hide her anguish, when she desperately promised me that she would not come back.
“But I was not angry. No, I kneeled before her as she begged. I took her hands along with the scroll and asked her what she was doing.
“When she saw that I was not angry, indeed that I seemed only curious, she smiled and her trap closed around me. Isamahlia told me that she only wanted to look at the scrolls. They were so beautiful and she admitted that she had been trying to figure out the symbols. It broke my heart that she could not read them. Of course a woman would have never been taught letters, but still to see someone who wanted to read, and was unable to, it hurt me in a fierce way.
“I led Isamahlia into a private room of the library where we could talk and not be noticed. I discovered that she had been sneaking into my library for over a year. Suddenly any misplaced scroll that I had puzzled over came to mind and then made sense. Enchanted by this fair daughter of my King, whose face I was never meant to see, I told her right then that she could come to the library whenever she was able and then I told her that I would teach her how to read.
“Isamahlia was more than grateful. She told me that I was the kindest best man in all of Gyhwen and that she would love no other. She kissed me. Isamahlia knew no shame or fear. She cared nothing for her maidenhead, so strictly protected for years. We loved each other among the scrolls and I learned of things that can never quite be written down correctly. At that time, I thought that our inevitable doom would be worth our joy. Today you saw how mistaken I was.”
Amar asked, “How long did your affair go on?”
“Two years and three months,” Urlen replied heavily. “We were so careful at first. Our fear of being caught was fresh, but as our bond grew and Isamahlia learned to read, we spent longer and longer together. Now, it was not a strange thing for me to be shut away in my library. I was not missed, but Isamahlia was. It was difficult for her to hide her absences from the women’s palace. Of course, she had servants lying for her, and even some of her sisters. All making excuses and stories to explain where Isamahlia had been. I never figured out who betrayed us initially, but they all testified against her at the trial. Curse them. I don’t know if it was jealousy for her happiness and intelligence that motivated them or just fear.
“We were caught together in my library that had blossomed with joy and learning. In her body I found great satisfaction for that part of me that is flesh, but there is also tremendous satisfaction in teaching an able student and to see her grateful, truly grateful, for the knowledge that I could share. And her perspective on so many things was so fresh to me. Her mind had not been infested with the crushing dogma of men that narrows so much interpretation.”
Amar asked Urlen if he had been caught in the act of loving the King’s daughter.
Urlen shook his head. “No. We were reading, which was perhaps worse. If I had been caught in her naked embrace, my punishment and death would have been quicker. You see, I was given over to the torture of Preem for teaching Isamahlia the letters of men, which is forbidden to women,” he said.
The other men murmured in agreement, but Onja was confused. “Why is this forbidden?” she asked.
Urlen knew the official reasons well enough. They had very recently been pounded anew into his head, but he only replied miserably, “I don’t know, fair and gentle rys maid.”
Amar offered an explanation. “Women are the keepers of love and family. They are for children. The teachings of men are beyond them,” he said.
“Is this what you think of me?” Onja demanded indignantly.
“You are not a woman,” Amar answered.
No, indeed, Onja thought. “Urlen,” she said. “What was done to Isamahlia? Was she put in another sky temple to die?”
Urlen stifled a sob. He wished he could answer yes and then they could go save her. “She was publicly drowned for her crime,” Urlen said. His face then collapsed in his hands. They had made him watch her die. Many in the ignorant crowd had cheered. Her parents had seemed pleased that she had met a just end.
“I would rest,” Urlen murmured.
“Your story was interesting. Go to your rest,” Onja said. She got up and returned to her perch on the boulder and resumed her meditation.
Everyone else settled into camp and divvied up the watches through the night, nervous that the Nurati might discover what they had done. Urlen took no watch and slept fitfully. His exhaustion from his exposure and torture kept him unconscious, but his nightmares shook his slender body.
When Amar was on watch, he listened to Urlen mutter in his sleep. Amar had no doubt that Urlen would always be grateful to him for the rescue, and Amar decided that he would keep this scholar close to him. Urlen had much to offer that rogues and warriors did not.
In the morning they moved on. Urlen rode with Amar, clutching the strong back of the young warrior like a feeble baby monkey.
That day they rode well past dark, letting Onja guide them overland in the gloom. A waning half moon rose late and illuminated the land when they came out of the rugged forest onto a bare hilltop that afforded a wide view of the Temulanka Domain. For generations, the Temulanka had kept trees clear from the hill and a splendid thick turf grew atop it, crisscrossed by deer trails.
Beyond the hill, the land descended into fertile flat farmlands, broken by thick woods and blocky mesas. In the distance a few lights twinkled on a fortress on a butte.
Onja slipped off her stallion.
Kym protested, “Onja, we should not camp here. The Temulanka will see our fire from that fortress.”
She said, “Camp where it pleases you, but I shall stay here.” She then told Amar to come back to her in the morning.
Reluctantly he accepted that she wanted solitude. With Urlen snoring softly against his shoulder, Amar followed the others down the hill. He looked back once and saw a crow flap across the moonlit sky.
Vame located a nearby creek basin thick with old willows where they could camp unseen. Amar took the first watch. He was restless now that he had reached the Temulanka Domain, and he reflected deeply about his next steps. The others went to sleep quickly, except for Kym, who Amar knew was watching him.
At the first hint of dawn, Amar dove into his workout regimen. After his run, he found Onja in the meadow. He was sweaty and breathing hard from his workout.
Blue fire burned in Onja’s eyes. “Take my hand,” she commanded.
Amar complied and her grip was strong. An intense burning assaulted his palm. When she released him, his palm was amazingly not injured and he held a crystal orb. Many shades of blue streaked through the crystal and light glowed deep inside it. In awe, he gazed at it until he finally managed to ask what it was.
Onja had to consider how to explain in his language. “A warding crystal,” she decided. “It is my enchantment. Carry this crystal, Amar. It will help me find you and communicate with you.”
Very touched, he closed his hand around the crystal and held it to his chest. “I will guard this precious jewel with my life,” he said.
“Keep it close,” Onja advised. “I must leave you today.”
“No,” he blurted before he could help himself.
Although touched by his affection, Onja ignored his protest. “I have brought you to Wayndo. He is in that fortress,” she said and gestured toward the haphazard collection of stone and wooden buildings on the butte. “I will show him to you.”
Onja touched his forehead and his anxiety dissolved. At first, Amar felt trapped in a thick silent fog. Then he saw land beneath his feet and he seemed to be climbing a wide path dug into the side of a butte. Paving stones had been laid to help the road keep its shape through the seasons. Ragged patchy grass grew alongside the path in crevices on the sides of the butte. He passed through a gate of thick timbers bound by old blue bronze. Beyond the gates was a courtyard where horses, carts, and people milled in the basic business of morning. Guard houses, towers, barns, and storehouses surrounded the courtyard.
Amar’s attention was directed to the largest and newest tower constructed of cut stone. Above the tower’s entrance, a sigil of a speckled senshal’s face was carved into the stone. Instead of entering the tower through the door, stained freshly white, Amar felt himself fly up to a window two levels down from the roof. His stomach felt like it left his body. He hovered in front of the window and then stepped on its sill and crouched inside.
Within the chamber he spied a middle-aged man. He was lean and strong, mostly bald and what remained of his gray and black hair hung in a braid down his neck. He wore no shirt but old leather bracers covered his wrists and higher up his arms were the scars where the blades of many foes had nicked him. A loose pair of black pants sagged around his hips as he moved carefully through an upsa routine. Purposefully his hands moved away from his body and then came back together and touched his chest as he stepped through a series of slow kicks and squats.
Amar studied the movements of the man’s body. Age had yet to blunt the physical abilities of this Temulanka warlord.
“Wayndo,” Onja whispered in Amar’s mind.
The man lingered in Amar’s vision for another moment and then Onja guided his senses deeper into the tower. They explored the halls and stairs and rooms and vaults. After spying upon every space in the tower, all the images faded and Amar was back on the hill. The rys drew her hand away from his forehead. Amar blinked and stepped back, seeking his balance.
Onja said, “I heard men call him Wayndo. Do you remember his face?”
Amar told her yes. He remembered quite vividly every detail of the extraordinary journey. Amar would be able to recognize Wayndo at a glance and he knew the tower like he had grown up in it. He wanted to ask her how she had shown him such things, but he decided it was rude to constantly pester her with questions. She was magic and he should accept it without child-like curiosity.
Instead he asked her why she was leaving. The subject seemed to trouble her. She looked at the jagged blue mountains that were her homeland.
“A rys cannot stay always away from the Rysamand,” she said. “The snows of winter are coming and I would go home.”
Amar envied her because she still had a home to go back to. He opened his hand that held the warding crystal.
“You will contact me again?” he said, seeking reassurance.
“Someday, Amar,” Onja said.
Saddened at the prospect of her absence, he dared to ask if he could go with her. Onja pondered the possibility. At last she said, “Not now, but I think that someday you will see Jingten.”
“I would like that,” he said, accepting the rejection that she had softened with hope.
Onja stopped gazing wistfully toward her home and regarded him seriously. “Amar, I would have you seek power. Be the prince you were born to be. I will have need of your strength, and I know I have your loyalty,” Onja said.
Her statement was both ominous and exciting to Amar. He thought he knew what she wanted him to do. His own thoughts had begun to flirt with ambition, and her command gave him the courage to be more than a lousy bandit or assassin.
“Why do you help me, Onja?” he asked. “If you seek powerful allies, why don’t you go to a king or warlord who already has power? You are great. No one would deny you their loyalty.”
She replied, “Chance brought you to me, Amar. Sometimes that suffices to make a decision. I think that in time, these kings you speak of will lend me their strength, but they will never be my friends. Not like you.”
Amar gripped his warding crystal tightly, profoundly touched by her kind words. “I will do my best,” he vowed.
Onja then asked him for his iron sword. Amar gave it to her. She touched the place where the blade was recently blunted by breaking Urlen’s chains. She ran her hand along both edges of the sword. Blue light sparkled between her fingers. When she returned the sword to Amar, he plucked the blade gingerly with his thumb. The edge was exceptionally sharp and perfectly restored.
“You’ll not need to sharpen it again,” Onja explained.
With grateful awe, he thanked her.
“I must go. Be patient. You shall see me again,” Onja said. Her stallion sauntered to her side, and she bounded easily onto the animal’s back.
“Good luck,” he said because she seemed to be leaving with some great purpose.
Onja thanked him but knew that luck would have little to do with the future she imagined.
Amar watched her ride away, and he was bereft of comfort again. Her departure blasted a desolate hole in his heart, but he had her command to guide him. As she headed for her mountain homeland, he steered his attention to the Temulanka Domain. The path to new fortunes started here.