Friday, October 10, 2008

The Warrior Matron, Conclusion

If you haven't read earlier episodes, you can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.

And now, the conclusion of...

© Paul Kupperberg

Kahna ate some more of her cold provisions as she continued her journey to the First City on foot. Several miles along, well past the staggering army’s advance, she found a stray horse, saddled and bearing the colors of the City of the Stars. His reins hung to the ground as he drank from a stream. She guessed the beast had fled the battle after his master had fallen to a demon, but it was calm now and didn’t shy from her. She took the reins and, letting the horse drink its fill, talked soothingly to it.

It was only when she tried to mount him that the horse grew skittish. She started singing to calm it, a soothing tune that was, at first, a wordless melody. But then she recognized it and the words came back to her and she began to sing it. The lullaby her mother sang to her, the one she sang to every one of her many, many children.

Kahna turned her head, embarrassed least even the horse see her eyes fill with tears.

* * *

The horse finally let Kahna mount him and she pointed his nose on the road toward the First City. She let him go easy at first, getting used to her weight on his back and her hand on the reins. But soon enough, she had him at a trot, and she was determined to make her destination before nightfall. She was certain she would find Thalis there, one way or another, and be reunited to fix this thing and get on with lives that had been interrupted more that eight centuries earlier.

What would Thalis see when he looked into her eyes, now those of a different woman than the one he last knew?

Once, he told her he saw in those eyes a reflection of his own soul.

If she was indeed who she knew herself to be and not some deluded mad woman, that is what he would see again. Not the tired, sagging face, the thickened body and gray-streaked hair of a middle-aged smith’s wife, but Kahna, his soul mate.

But she knew that each time she looked in the mirror, she would see Malasa.

* * *

Kahna approached the walls of the First City on foot, under the cover of darkness. She began smelling the sea late in the afternoon and, by the time the sun had dropped, she could hear the pounding surf and feel a fine, cooling mist.

She let the horse go and, by the simple act of draping a blanket around her shoulders like a shawl, her sword and shield were hidden and she was effectively disguised as a harmless old woman.

Kahna had deliberately chosen a small gate on the leeward side of the City. As she recalled, it was seldom used and often unguarded, but that had been centuries ago. The entire city might have changed in the time she had been away...

Except time moved slowly for Atlantis, this mighty empire that had stood 50,000 years and might yet see 50,000 more. That which did change did not do so with haste, not even the watch schedule of forgotten portals.

The gate was little more than a doorway that opened onto the back of a row of densely packed dwellings, stinking from garbage and smoke. There was no one about, but Kahna had expected that. Whatever was happening in the City, the merchant and craftsman, the servant and shop clerk would flee from it or hide in their cellars until the danger had passed. Only arrogant royals and stoic soldiers stayed behind while demonic forces came wreaking havoc.

And the mage, she added quickly. The mage was always there until the very end as well. All she need do was first find him and bring him there.

Keeping a hand on the hilt of her sword under her shawl, Kahna made her way through the dark streets of the First City. She stayed close to the homes and shops, joining with their shadows to keep out of sight. She saw no one, but periodically, things passed by overhead that cast large and evilly distorted shadows on the street, accompanied by otherworldly squeals and chitters.

She needed the palace. If the Guard had managed to hold the palace, she would learn much from the commanders and advisors inside the heavily fortified heart of the First City. Kahna smiled to herself, wondering how she would convince the Royal Guard to let her pass. Or generals to reveal their secrets to a housewife claiming to be a reincarnated warrior.

Kahna took a longer but less visible route to the palace. She made her way through alleyways and back streets, circling open areas to avoid crossing in the light. The streets were as quiet as death, patrolled from the air by the same winged monsters she had fought through the night.

Kahna paused on the fringe of the great park that surrounded the darkened palace. The landscape was level and, before it had been pitted and charred by combat, meticulously planted and maintained. The park was wide open, intentionally created to give attackers intent on stealth no hiding places. Whether the palace was held by friend or foe, she was certain any attempt to cross the encircling park would most likely meet with an attack.

She stood in the shadow of a tall, leafy tree on the park’s edge, watching the tall, graceful spire of the palace as she pondered her situation.

Kahna heard a noise and froze in place. Footsteps, shuffling down the street! They were drawing nearer, making no attempt to be silent. Not daring to draw her sword, Kahna slid one of Khar’s daggers out from under her sleeve and slowly raised it, her ears tracking the approaching intruder.

And then she was there, but it was neither demon or soldier who, gasping, drew to a stop when she spotted Kahna. It was a woman, like her. Like Malasa. Middle-aged, worn and haggard, unraveled by her life, wrapped in a dark shawl against the night chill.

“Who are you?” Kahna demanded, her tone harsher than she had intended.

The woman was wide-eyed. She could only stammer, “I, I had not expected...everyone else has fled or is in hiding...!”

Kahna pulled the woman into the shadow of the tree. “You should be doing the same,” she scolded. “What are you doing out here?”

The woman began to tremble and her eyes filled. “ daughter...she’s only a child, but she’s missing, you see,” she sobbed. “I’ve been looking for her everywhere... the first night the demons came...I lost her in the mob....”

Kahna tried to quiet her. “You need to find shelter,” she hissed.

The woman shook off Kahna’s hand. “I can’t,” she said and Kahna was taken aback by the sudden steel in her voice. “They killed my husband and took my children. She is all I have left.”

The woman pushed past Kahna and continued on her way, muttering, “All I have left!”

Kahna stayed in the shadows, not moving until the woman was out of her hearing. Then she turned her gaze back to the palace. There, high above streets torn by demonic warfare, the doors on the king’s balcony had swung open, golden light from within spilling out like a beacon in the night.

A lone figure stood on the balcony, bathed in the lights warm glow.

She took a step forward, narrowing her eyes. The figure was tall and lean, with long flowing hair tied at the neck. He raised his hands high above his head and she saw the light around him grow brighter.

“Thalis,” she whispered.

So...he magician did not need his warrior lover after all! She was surprised that she felt nothing at this revelation. Well, at least she had arrived in time to join him in the endgame with whatever otherworldly foe he now prepared with his magic to dispatch.

She took another step, into the light and the open park.

But the scream made her stop and whirl, drawing her sword and crying out.

Thalis, high above the city, did not hear the woman’s scream.

She looked frantically around. She heard the sounds of chattering demons, the scrape of talons on the walk and ran towards them, sword in hand. A prayer caught in her throat, a prayer for the missing child and her poor mother. A prayer for what she would see when she found the woman.

Dark shapes with leathery wings were melting into the night sky as she burst onto the scene. There was little left of the woman, jagged and bloody pieces of raw red and cracked bones, recognizable only by the dark shawl thrown across a nearby bush.

She sank to her knees next to the remains and, for reasons that would not become clear to her until morning, she knelt there through the night, crying and praying.

All the while, the night sky was made bright as day by the magic spells that would decide the fate of Atlantis.

* * *

By noon, she passed the army she had left the day before as it rode for the First City. She did not bother to tell them it was over.

She had left her weapons and armor on the street alongside the woman and walked from the City through the main gate. She would not need them where she was going.

Not in this lifetime.

But if the past was any indication, the future would hold opportunities aplenty to save the world again. And lives enough to be reunited with Thalis.

But for now Malasa yet had two young ones to shepherd into maturity and a husband with whom she had long hoped to grow old waiting at home.

-- END --

No comments: