© Paul Kupperberg
She left early the next morning, before the sun came up. Khar pretended to be asleep and she pretended to believe him. She packed what little she would need, a bedroll, her cloak, a skin rug, a few extra pieces of sturdy, warm clothing, provisions and personal items.
And her sword, riding in a leather sheath belted to the saddle and close at hand. As well, she went through Khar’s workshop and picked out a mismatched set of daggers, one to strap to her forearm, another to snug in her boot.
Malasa’s last act brought her to the bed shared by Shartra and Vannga. She had promised she would not leave without first awakening them. She had lied, the thought of having to say farewell to her babies too overwhelming to even contemplate. Just looking at them, so innocent in sleep, tore at Malasa’s heart. It was best it be done this way, that Malasa step from this house and ride away before the sun could show she was gone. The tears and the pain would still be there, but this way she did not have to see them etched on the faces of her children, to carry their heartbreak forever with her.
She kissed them, lightly lest she wake them, and Shartra stirred only briefly to wipe away Malasa’s tear as it fell on her cheek.
* * *
She rode southwest, for the First City.
* * *
Kahna rode into a detachment of the king’s soldiers from the City of the Scorpion on the road to the First City.
“Ho, grandmother soldier,” a young man in armor called with laughter from horseback.
“Do you need someone to help lift your sword, little mother?” mocked another.
“Did your little one forget his bedroll, mama?” laughed a third.
“Where do you ride?” she demanded of an amused sergeant.
“To the First City, mother,” he told her. “Ride along with us if you will, but know it’s to battle we march.”
Kahna nodded. “I can take care of myself, boy.”
The sergeant barked out a laugh. “I’m sure you can, mother,” he said. “Just don’t get in the way if trouble breaks out.”
Kahna smiled. “I won’t be in the way.”
* * *
The Scorpion City’s line soon joined a contingent from the City of the Mists, itself already merged with a battalion from the City of the Mages.
Soon enough the warriors of all the cities knew about “mother,” the sword wielding old woman who raced to every new arrival demanding intelligence on the Lord High Mage of the Realm.
From a bearded archer, she learned Thalis was said to have embarked on a quest to recover an ancient and powerful talisman to aid in his war on the demons. A cavalryman who claimed to have fought off demon hoards with the sorcerer on the Plains of Drlyss claimed Thalis had been captured, most likely by the minions of Celepha. A lancer scoffed at the notion of a water goddesses’ reach extending to the dusty Drlyss plains, positing instead that Thalis had entered the Darkness to fight the evil at its heart, while still another bitterly insisted the Mage had turned traitor and joined with the demons.
Nothing but gossip and rumor, Kahna knew. In truth, what would the trooper in the line know about the comings and goings of the land’s mightiest sorcerer?
She would just have to wait until they made the First City.
Kahna would have her answer then.
* * *
Two days out from the First City, the road was choked with refugees fleeing the war wracked capitol. Families carrying what they could hold, merchants with hastily loaded wagons, all seeking to be away from the madness that the seat of the realm had become. The city on the edge of the sea was overrun with hellspawn, the Guard helpless before their number, the temples of the Twelve Gods aflame, the King enslaved...
Kahna’s stomach tensed at the thought of the chaos that awaited up the road, but it was in anticipation of the adventure, not fear. She grasped the hilt of the sword sheathed to her saddle and grinned.
This, she thought with grim satisfaction, was reason enough for living.
* * *
It was an army gathered from across the continent that surged toward the First City under increasingly darkening skies. But a day’s march from its gates, it was plain to see that a sorcerous storm sat over the city, black clouds thrashing the air with mystic lightning, lashing it with thick, sulphurous rains.
Kahna rode alongside cavalry from the City of the Mists, wrapped in a hooded cloak against the chill. She was so tired of the riding and of her thoughts swirling about the battle that lay ahead and the fate of Thalis, but of course that was all she could think on. She smiled, remembering a little game Shartra had once showed them. “Whatever you do,” the girl had told her parents, “do not think about a pink horse! Not one bit!” and for the rest of the day, all either Malasa or Khar could think of was that accursed pink horse.
The warrior priestess was thinking of the farm-wife’s pink horse when the first warning shouts went up and the alarm shrilled from the horns of the trumpeters. Kahna grasped her sword, reveling at the sound of steel singing against the leather as she pulled it free of the sheath. Only once it was in her hand and raised did she look around for the cause of the alarm.
They filled the sky from the west, creatures of all sizes and shapes, none of them even remotely human. With swords and spears, maces and clubs, talons and fangs, they swooped down on the Atlantean army, slashing and beating at the startled and scared soldiers. Screams of terror and pain melded with showers of blow and the metallic beat of weapons striking weapons and armor.
Kahna wheeled her horse around, bringing up the sword Malasa’s husband had made for her just in time to block a spear thrust at her by a winged and furred beast with blood red eyes. She smashed the jagged spear from its clawed paws and then slashed across its face. It screeched like a battered child and feel away from her, clutching its ruined face.
She charged forward, screaming so she could hear herself above the din of combat, hacking at whatever came in her path. A beast more bat than man leapt onto her horse behind her, trying to wrest Kahna from the saddle. Her mount reared up and Kahna clung to the reins with her sword hand while the other reached over her shoulder and clawed at the monster’s face.
Something small and leathery and smelling unimaginably foul barreled into her and unseated her from her horse. Kahna hit the ground but was almost instantly back on her feet, the small thing impaled on her sword. Arrows filled the air, hoofs trampled the ground around her, swords and spears flashed and man and demon alike screamed in horror and pain as they died.
Kahna did not think about death. At least not her own. Blood of different colors and pieces of things once living but that she could not identify flew about her. She was in battle again, her heart pounding in her chest, her breath ragged gasps torn from her throat with each thrust of her blood slicked blade. The creatures kept coming. The soldiers of Atlantis fought and died all about her.
She saw the sergeant from the Scorpion army who had warned her not to get in the way in the event of trouble fall as a creature as big as two men hacked him in two with a broadsword as wide a floor plank.
Kahna could tell her body had lived near fifty years, but the heaviness in her limbs did not slow her down. She was a warrior again and, as gore from the foes that fell before her sword splashed her face, she began to laugh.
Gods, she had missed this!