© Paul Kupperberg
When she rode up to the barn Khar was there to help her with the horse.
He smiled but his eyes were frightened and bloodshot. “I wondered if you were coming home,” he said with a nervous laugh.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He hung up the saddle and returned with a bucket of feed. He pretended to busy himself with that while Malasa made busy brushing the horse.
“The girls,” he said at last. “They were worried, Malasa.”
“I didn’t mean to be a bother to anyone,” she said, softly. “This is nothing, nothing I’ve planned, Khar.”
His head jerked in her direction. “What didn’t you plan?”
She reached into her saddlebag and brought out the cloth wrapped ingot. She handed it to Khar, who took it as though afraid it was something that could hurt him.
He unwrapped the package. “Steel?” he asked, blinking in confusion.
“Yes,” she said. “To make a sword.”
He blinked several more times. “Why do I need a sword?”
“It is for me, Khar,” she explained, unable to look him in the eyes. “I will need it for the journey I have to make.”
Malasa’s heart ached. Poor Khar was so bewildered, as though asked to decide a question of life and death in a language he did not speak.
“Malasa,” he stammered. “I don’t understand.”
She touched his cheek. “I’m not sure I do either, Khar,” she said. “But I was wrong about the eclipse. It was a...calling, a summoning. I don’t know where it will take me or even why I must go...I just know that I must.”
She told him only a part of the truth. And he, believer in omens, worshipper of a pantheon of gods that watched over their human charges, could accept that a celestial event was a divine summons for his middle-aged wife to embark on a quest with a sword at her side.
Khar took a deep breath. “But...why you, Malasa?”
Because, she thought, I am suddenly, thirty years after we wed, a different woman. Because that woman loves another, an immortal warrior to whom she was bound, heart and soul, through as many ages and lives as it took until they were united for eternity.
But she only shrugged in helplessness and began to cry. “Because of who I am,” she said and let him hold her until they both stopped crying, some time later.
* * *
She listened to the ring of Khar’s hammer on the steel he was fashioning, day by day, into a sword. He explained how the steel had to be shaped and turned repeatedly, heated and hammered over and over onto itself into near invisibly thin layers. It was a long process, to be done right, he said. It was to be the finest blade he had ever forged, he told her. Malasa would ride off with a weapon formed with skill and finished with love, to ward off any evil she might encounter on her journey.
Khar was in no hurry to complete the task.
She, waiting nervously, let him work at his own speed.
* * *
Vannga asked, “Can’t I go with you, mama?”
She was standing with her back to the child. The little girl’s words froze her. “No,” she said at last, in as calm and as reasonable a voice as she could manage. “Mama has to do this alone, baby.”
“I wouldn’t be any trouble, I promise,” the little girl said in a voice choking with sadness.
“I know you wouldn’t, Vannga,” she said. “But I can’t take you with me.”
“When will you come back?”
The question came as a whisper, the voice of a heart broken child. She shuddered, Kahna fighting desperately to maintain control of Malasa’s emotions.
“As soon as I can, Vannga,” she said. “Mama will come home as soon as she’s able.”
* * *
From a passing peddler whose horse Khar shoed, they learned that the First City had come under siege by demonic forces from the Darkness. The other Cities were rallying to her defense, but this was really a matter for the mages, not men.
“What of Thalis?” she asked, somewhat too eagerly.
The peddler did not know, only that the Lord High Mage had not yet made his presence known on the battlefield, last news that had reached him.
“What do you know of this Thalis?” Khar asked.
She said, “He’s the mightiest sorcerer in the realm. He’s no doubt in trouble...again, and as usual, when he’s needed most.”
“I’d say you know too much,” he said, surprised.
“Khar,” she said.
“Damn it, woman, I’ve been more tolerant than any man alive. You say you’ve been summoned and I do not question you. You come home in need of a sword and I make one. You claim a mission and I bid you go, no matter with deepest reluctance. But what do you give me in return? You tell me nothing and when I ask questions you reply with half answers.”
She shrugged. “I don’t have all the answers yet myself,” she said.
He shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”
* * *
The next day, Khar gave her the sword. It was, she thought, the most beautiful thing she had seen in this life. Its blade, as long as her arm, was wide and tapered from the middle down to double--edged sharpness. Khar had polished it until it gleamed like the sun and wrapped the handle under the wide guard with firm leather straps.
She took the sword, scarcely breathing, folding her hand around the hilt and slowly, hesitantly, waved it before her. It felt...Malasa had never in her life held a sword, yet this felt right. Its weight was familiar in her grasp, it balanced in her fist like an extension of her arm. She grew bolder in her movements, slashing the air, thrusting at imagined foes, parrying phantom jabs. And she laughed, loud and with bloodthirsty pleasure, the way Kahna would do in combat.
She would go armed into battle, in search of Thalis, to save him again so that he could save Atlantis in turn. It had always seemed a sad thing to her that the one man upon whose power Atlantis’ continued existence relied was so often at the brink of personal catastrophe.
Wordlessly, Khar left her to the swordplay. She did not see him leave.