Prologue

As was usual in the southern island nation, the skies were cloudy and rain threatened. The businessman from one of the northern countries stepped off his ship and onto the Stasian land for only the second time in his life. The first time, he had come seeking to find a buyer for his horses after hearing that the country of Stasia was without horses. He had found a much better deal than he could have imagined – King Dalibor wished to purchase a large number of horses, enough to start his own herd, and Atanas was more than willing to supply him.

Following his father was his fourteen year old son, who did not seem to be very excited, even though he knew that he was one of the few people from his homeland to see Stasia, nor did he care that he was part of a journey which could potentially open up trade between Stasia and Fiamett. He was upset that he had been forced to leave home and travel on a ship just because his father wanted him to take over the family business one day. The boy did love the horses, but he had no desire to be tied down.

"Hurry up, boy," Atanas impatiently ordered. His son was dragging his feet, and Atanas was determined to make the transaction with the Stasian king go smoothly. If he hadn't been desperate for his son to gain some interest in the family business, he would have left him at home. If traveling to a distant land didn't work, Atanas didn't know what would. But despite having always expressed the desire to travel, the boy did not seem too happy. The rough trip over the sea didn't seem to go over well with him.

Atanas and his son traveled by carriage to the palace, along with the translator who was also driving the carriage. The fog had been thick earlier in the day, but it was starting to clear, allowing the boy to at least see something outside his window. He could not see far, but he could tell that there were large trees along the road. By the time they reached the capital city of Lantian, the fog had lifted to allow the boy to get a better look. Not only were there trees growing around the city, but an entire forest. It was the greenest forest he had ever seen – even the tree trunks were green!

He opened his mouth to comment on how green everything was to his father, but he thought better of it and shut his mouth, taking in the scene in silence. His father always seemed to be displeased when he talked about anything besides horses or the business, and he was learning to simply not say anything about any other topic. But he was amazed at how green the land was, and even the buildings were green with mosses growing on them. The boy couldn't wait until he got home to tell his sister about the land of green.

They were able to drive onto the palace grounds unchallenged. The driver was simply pointed over to where he needed to park the carriage. Getting into the palace was another matter entirely, and as it turned out, only Atanas and his translator were authorized to enter the palace; his son would have to wait outside.

"Don't worry about the lad," the guard said through Atanas' translator. "We'll keep an eye on him for you." He reached out and patted the boy on the shoulder.

Atanas didn't even bother to argue. Even if his son ended up getting himself killed somehow, the deal with the king was of far greater importance. After all, he did have another son at home who he could surely whip into shape. He and his translator proceeded into the castle, leaving the fourteen year old on his own outside.

With nothing better to do, he started wandering, although as promised, the guards were keeping an eye on him. It must be quiet around here if the only thing they have to do is watch me, he thought. He heard shouting and the clang of metal on metal not too far away, and he went to investigate, and he soon came upon a small group of young men apparently training with swords. At first glance, they all appeared to be his age, but on closer inspection, he saw that there were also several children, although they seemed to be in a separate group.

He also noticed something far more shocking than the fact that children were training with swords, which wasn't too surprising to the boy. But the fact that there were women was. He'd never heard of a woman fighting before, and he was confused when he saw that not only were there woman fighting, they were also fighting against the men.

He didn't know how long he was watching them for, but one of the children noticed him after a while. The child first alerted the other children to the boy watching them, and then another shouted something to the older man who seemed to be supervising the others. After barking an order, he quickly walked over to the boy and said something in his language.

Before the boy could respond, one of the guards, who had been watching from a distance, trotted over and quickly said something. After a brief exchange between the two, the guard left and the man looked down at the boy.

"Horse man son?" he asked, speaking in heavily accented, but still understandable Tanti, the language of Fiamett.

"Uh, yes," he replied after several moments of staring at the man. He had not expected anyone to speak Tanti at all, and it took him a bit longer than usual to process what he had been asked, and he still wasn't completely sure he was answering correctly, as the man did not speak well.

"Need sword. Fight strong." The children had gathered nearby, and the man looked over at them. He said something, and one ran over and held his sword out towards the foreign boy. He hesitated, but he eventually took it from him, not liking where the situation was going. The man said something else, and a young girl stepped forward, holding her sword ready.

"I can't fight her!" The boy argued once he realized what was wanted of him. "She's a girl!" And she was far younger than him as well. She looked about seven or eight to him, and was quite a bit shorter than he was.

"Still defeat you!" The girl argued back at him. Angry that he was going to refuse to fight her, she swung her sword at him. The boy stepped back quickly to avoid getting hit. Still, he was not willing to fight against her, even if she felt differently. She swept the sword towards him, but once again, he stepped back away from her. "Fight like coward!"

"I don't fight girls!"

His comment only seemed to anger her further, which he learned was a mistake. Furiously, she swung her blade at him, moving quicker than she had before and making contact with his forearm. He cried out in pain and dropped the sword he had been holding. Grabbing his hurt arm, he saw it was bleeding. He had not expected the children to be using sharp swords.

The man who had insisted that he fight was issuing orders. As the children went off to carry out his orders, he started speaking to the girl. The boy hoped that she would get in trouble for what she did, but instead, it seemed as if the man was telling her how to improve her skills. It didn't take long for the first children to start coming back, and once they did, the man's attention focused on the boy.

The man took some bandages from one of the children and started to bandage the bleeding arm. At first, the man said not a word, but once he was almost finished, he started speaking. "Horse child not fight. Weak not fight. Horse child weak. Learn fight."

The boy was insulted, but he said nothing. He had already decided that he hated Stasia and everyone in it. Besides the greenness of the surroundings, there was nothing nice about the place. There was fog, and even when it lifted, the sky was still gray. The air was cold and miserable and the people were odd. Not only did they have little girls fighting, but they tried to make him fight them too! He had no idea what sort of strange land he was in, but he wanted his father to hurry so they could leave.

When Atanas finally came out of the palace, his son saw that his father was once again disappointed in him. "It's bad enough that one son is a bastard and the other a delinquent, but now you turn out not to be much of a son at all. I'll have better luck turning your sister into a man than you."

Those were the final words that Atanas said to his son for the rest of the journey. Even when they returned home, Atanas had fewer words than ever before for his son, and even fewer of them were kind words. In fact, his son was able to count on one hand the number of kind words his father said to him from that time until his death.