Sari checked the horses one last time as her father made his way toward her. Shoryo was talking animatedly with a man. Sari recognised him as one of the refugees who they had camped with last night. He looked shifty at best. Although Sari knew better than to judge people by their appearance, she probably would not have associated with him in other circumstances. But war had its ways to push people together. Running away from the approaching armies of the Empire was one of them. She watched as her father nodded to something the man said, then shook his hand. Shoryo made his way back to his daughter and started to secure the last of his belongings to his big black horse.

"The Empire are about five days behind. It seems they have abandoned trying to put Tanjo under siege because our ships are too fast to be stopped by their blockade. They are now moving to take over the rest of the country. Shinka fell two days ago."

Sari wanted to gasp but could not. Her home-town had been an obvious target, if you believed the talks round the campfires. Shinka was a major trading city, the meeting point between the East-West trading route and the Surai River. Said river also happened to be the principal trading route South to Hashandor. Any goods that didn't travelled by sea and didn't need to go through Tanjo went through Shinka.

Sari shook her head. She didn't want to know how much of the town was left standing. She preferred to live in hope that she and her family could return and resume their lives when the Empire was defeated. She refused to think of an alternative.

"What of Tsuki and Ikki?"

"No words on the Magicians."

Sari did wince slightly this time. Tsuki had been training her in the Arts since she had been old enough to concentrate. It wasn't quite legal, but they had the King's approval and met mostly in secret. Shoryo nodded to someone behind her, and Sari turned slightly to see her brothers coming. Tojido didn't waste any time and simple jumped on his white horse. Sari let go of the reins as he gathered them in his hands.

"I'm joining the advance party today."

Sari cringed at the words and carefully looked anywhere but at her father. She noticed that Hishuko was looking at her with a grin. Hishuko was 15 and Sari was 20. Neither of them was legally an adult, and thus had no choice in following their father's orders. Tojido, however, was 25 and an adult in every sense.

Shoryo had wanted the family to stay together to avoid getting lost. The refugees needed all the people who could fight to help securing camps and scouting for a safe way ahead. And Tojido was a weapon smith, and good at using those weapons he crafted. Although sons and daughters always owed their parents respect, adults didn't have to do as they were told. Her father could only nod acknowledgement that his eldest had chosen his path, at least for the day ahead.

As Tojido moved away, he signalled Sari to follow. She frowned, but walked with him a few steps, mindful that her father didn't think she was joining the advance party.

"I had made something for your birthday. I did mean to keep it until then but I think if I'm to be away during the day, someone else should be able to help Father if trouble arises."

Tojido handed her two long packages wrapped in cloth. As Sari reached to get them, one of the cloths slid off and revealed a longbow, carved with small roses. Sari smiled up at her brother, guessing what would be in the other bundle. She had argued with her father that she knew enough to defend herself and the family if need be. He had agreed, but said he couldn't afford to spend the money they had on weapons when they would probably need it for food.

Tojido nodded at her, and Sari took a step back as her brother nudged his horse forward. As Sari made her way back to the rest of the family, her father nodded at her and her new weapons.

"You have two minutes to get ready." He smiled grimly at her then helped her mother and sister onto their mounts.

Sari quickly unwrapped her new bow, and smiled as she saw that the matched quiver of black leather, full with a dozen arrows. The young woman quickly unclasped her travelling cloak and fitted the quiver to her back, putting her cloak back on in such a way as she could reach for an arrow without impediment. She kneeled to open the second package. Inside was a katasai, a hand-and-a-half slightly curved sword. Sari drew the weapon from its sheath. The outer edge was razor sharp and ran the length of the blade. The inner edge, starting at the point, was just as sharp. Half way down to the handle, the edge became blunt. The sheath was made of dark wood and wrapped in black leather. Looking at the flat of the blade, Sari smiled to see a dragon carved on one side of the steel, and a wolf on the other. Tojido had often joked that with her gift, Sari could revolutionise the way Hashandor trained their famous dragon-lords and easily tame the infamous wolves that lived in the Shadow Mountains.

With a shake of her head and a smile, Sari took her belt off to add her new sword to her armament. She quickly picked up the cloths her birthday presents had been wrapped in and went to stuff them into one of her saddle bags. Her bow in hand, she then jumped into the saddle of her chestnut stallion and turned to face the rest of her family. Her father was riding on a black horse with ease. Her mother, Kaira, was sitting on a light-grey horse, and still looked far from at ease. Misara, Sari's sister, sat a lot better on the roan than she did on the first day. Hishuko looked like he was born to ride the dark brown gelding.

Sari looked at her father who nodded. She reached back for an arrow and notched it to her bowstring while expertly turning her horse with only the help of her legs. Sari sighed as she took the lead of their little group. Yesterday, Tojido was at the front. She shook her head, unwilling to think about the danger her brother was putting himself in. Hishuko and Misara rode side by side behind her, chattering away. Her parents brought up the rear. The rules Shoryo had imposed to his family as they started their flight to Hashandor were foremost on Sari's mind as they set off: if the enemy showed up they were to ride; if one of them fell behind, they would only be waited for if they was no danger; if they got separated, they should leave the road and skirt it until they met up with their travelling group; if all else failed, they were to ride to Hashandor and ask to be taken to a dragon-lord named Darius.

Sari could not help thinking there was still something strange about the King's gifts and these instructions. A messenger had turned up on their doorstep the same day the army had arrived in Shinka. Six of the strongest and fastest warhorses Sari had had the pleasure to train for the King were given to the family. They had also been given packs with food, clothes, and fodder, and been told to depart within two hours. Tsuki and Ikki were supposed to meet them on the road. They were all to go straight to Hashandor, and ask for a dragon-lord named Lord Tegor once they got there. The messenger had given Shoryo a sealed message addressed to the dragon-lord, probably vouching for the family and the two Magicians.

Shoryo had never questioned the orders. When Sari had, her father had simply said that the whole family had been working for the King and the Royal Family in various ways for many years. Shoryo had been a smith for them since before he was an adult, and Hishuko was following suite. Kaira was a wonderful seamstress and was often asked to create gowns for the Queen. Tojido had soon become one of the most-favoured weapon smiths at the court. Misara was a well-known baker. Sari was on her way to become the best animal trainer and handler in the country. The King was now repaying the family's hard work. It also made sense to prevent the best crafters from being killed, as they would be needed to rebuild the country once the war was over.

Sari had swallowed her answer, but privately thought this wasn't right. The baker next door had been a regular supplier of the castle, but he hadn't given expensive warhorses to flee the country with! Her suspicions had been raised further when Tsuki and Ikki had taken her aside and made her promise to follow these orders to the letter until they managed to catch up.

"What you thinking about?"

Sari turned slightly to her left as her brother drew level with her. She gave him a small smile.

"Don't worry about it. Just something nagging at me. How come to ride so well anyway?"

Hishuko grinned at his older sister.

"Tojido's been teaching me. Said it wouldn't do for me not to know when you could, even if not well."

Sari laughed at that. Trust Tojido to give her what she wanted for her birthday, then bring her down even from a distance. Well for that, she hoped he fell from his horse in front of all his friends.

#

The rest of the day was uneventful. Sari and Hishuko talked about anything that wouldn't remind them too much of their situation. Mostly they talked about Hashandor. The Kingdom of the 10 Vales, their destination and probably the only country with the weapons and knowledge to stop the Empire. The home of the renowned Hashandor Knights, warrior-magicians flying astride dragons, and the undefeated protectors of the Shadow Mountains. Hishuko was full of stories from this land, and Sari listened quietly while watching for trouble. She had no idea where her brother had learnt half of the tales, but she did not question the company. Misara joined them when she grew tired of their parents' silence. Like Sari, she simply listened to Hishuko.

Dusk was upon them when they reached the fire camps. A large fields had been chosen to welcome the refugees for the night. Tojido was waiting near the entrance. As Sari looked around, she could see that their numbers had swelled from the night before. Just like the previous evening.

"You've noticed."

Sari glanced at Tojido as he walked his horse next to hers.

"That's too many people trying to escape together. We're going to stand out too much now. And be easy to follow too."

Sari nodded her head slowly. She knew her father would think the same. And he might decide they should split from the main group.

"But the King's message said to stick to the road. How would Father separate us from this group and still follow the King's order?"

"I think he will ask us to ride through the night."

Sari turned to look at her older brother. Tojido nodded grimly. Even with all the energy of a teenager, Hishuko would not be able to ride for 48 hours straight. That was needed if they wanted to get away.

"You know, Father has been getting us at first light the past few days. But this morning, we got to sleep in until well past dawn. Do you think he will get us to eat and just put us back on the road again?"

Tojido thought about it for a moment, then turned in his saddle, looking at their other two siblings and their parents. Their mother still looked like she wanted to be anywhere but on her horse's back. Hishuko looked tired, although he was still talking about Hashandor with Misara.

"I don't think it can be done until Mother feels more at ease on that mare of yours."

Sari snorted. "How many times? They are not my horses. I have only trained them."

Tojido smirked and Sari sighed as she realised her brother had effectively changed the conversation. As they neared a fire still relatively empty, Shoryo rode forward and dismounted. With ease he unbuckled his saddle and put it on the floor. The rest of the family followed suite. Once all had dismounted, Sari took hold of the six horses and led them a few steps away. She carefully checked for stones under hooves and for signs of lameness. She ran her hands over their legs and trickled some of her life-force into them, reliving the fatigue of a long day's work.

"You Sari Fuyudo?"

Sari turned to look at the woman standing behind her. From the corner of her eyes, she saw Tojido straighten. The family had had run-ins with less than friendly people in the camps before. Anyone could tell their horses were more than simple work-beasts. With her brother's silent support, Sari slowly stood and nodded.

"Name's Taori. Twisted my ankle and need it to walk in the morning."

Sari sighed and shook her head. "I'm not a trained healer. I can't heal you. The best I can do is relieve the pain. And it probably won't last till morning."

The woman nodded understanding, then proffered her foot. The ankle was swollen and a sick shade of purplish-blue. Sari wiped her hands on her leather trousers. She kneeled and pressed her fingertips to the joint. As she had done for the horses, she send her life-force forward to soothe the pain. Once done, she stood and took the woman's arm before she could walk away.

"I must warn you. As I said, I'm no healer. You can't feel the pain now, but your injury isn't healed and could get worse if you lean on it too much. And you won't know about it until it's too late. There were a dozen healers at our previous camps. I know some of them were not far behind us. Look for one."

The woman nodded then walked off, careful not to put too much weight on her injured ankle. Sari watched her leave before turning to Tojido. Her brother pointed at their mother and Sari nodded. Kaira was sitting on the floor, looking at her saddle as if it was a snake poised to strike.

"It will get better soon, Mother."

Kaira turned to her second daughter and smiled.

"You say that every night. I have yet to see this promise realised." Then she extended a hand.

Sari took it, crouched in front of her mother, and sent her life-force forward to soothe aching muscles.

"Can I have some of that too?"

Misara sat heavily on the ground and put her hand on top of Sari's head. Concentrating, Sari sent some of her power into her sister only to find she was far less tired than she seemed. Misara was obviously playing it up for their mother's benefit.

A few minutes later, Shoryo walked away as he saw a few people they had slept with the night before arrive. They had stayed behind as long as possible to wait for news of Shinka. Then ridden as fast as they could to catch up. Once Kaira and Misara were feeling better, Sari let go of her mother's hand as she stood to start on dinner. Sari went to sit against her saddle. The feeding of life-force to others was tiring, but nothing as bad as what her mother was going through. After a good night sleep, Sari would be alright. Whereas her mother would have been too sore to do much riding in the morning. Sari's mind wandered back to the woman with the sprained ankle. She had sensed that much when relieving the pain. Sari hadn't learnt to heal yet.

In Shurakun, those with a gift for magic were rare. The first signs usually appeared between the ages of five and ten year. Parents were asked to keep an eye on their children for magical occurrences and to alert the Magicians Hall at the court. The child were sent to the Hall when they could understand what was happening, and spent some time learning to control their powers. This could take anything from a week to several months. The child was then sent back to their family. Once they reached adulthood at 21, they would be asked back to the Magician Hall. There they learnt the basics of first aid, and maybe a few more tricks that could be useful in their chosen carreer. They were then sent back home. If they decided to put their powers wholly to the King's Service, they stayed in the Hall, learned everything about magic as well as how to use it as a weapon, and became magicians.

Sari had been a special case from the start. She had never cried for food or changing as a newborn, because Kaira would always have a feeling beforehand that her baby was needing something. Both Kaira and Shoryo had put that down to experience. When a toddling Sari had disappeared from the house however, only to be found outside playing with a large group of dogs, cats, birds and rodents, her parents had to call the Magician Hall. Because she was too young to be separated from her parents, a magician was sent to test her. Sari was discovered to have a unique and exceptionally strong magical talent. More surprising to the magician, she was in total control of her powers already. Kaira and Shoryo were told by the Magicians they would just have to put up with her, and try to teach the girl what could and should not be done with her powers.

After that, Sari was watched by the magicians and the King from afar. They were always worried of what the youngster would do, or that her powers would become uncontrollable. Sari turned out to be a sensible girl however. Her powers stayed firmly under her control, though she did not know how she did that. As she grew up, she was constantly surrounded by animals, and it was soon find that they were attracted to her because of her special brand of magic.

Sari was brought out of her thoughts as Misara pushed her bowl of warm stew in her hands.

"Eat. You need to get your strength back."

Sari took a spoonful of the meat and vegetable stew and blew on it to cool it down before putting the food in her mouth. Misara smiled, then sat on the ground with her bowl.

"So... What were you thinking about just now?"

Sari shrugged as she carried on eating. This was her siblings' favourite past time. They were always asking what she was thinking about, as she was the quieter of the four. Tojido was always joking that Sari should never be disturbed when thinking, because she was probably working out how to change the world. He was always the first to nudge her out of her thinking moods though.

"Any news yet?"

Misara shook her head. "Father is still with the others. Mother said not to wait, and go to sleep when we had finished."

Sari nodded as she looked around. Hishuko was already asleep, his head on his saddle and curled up in his blanket. Tojido was standing with their mother eating slowly while talking softly. Sari finished her stew and handed the bowl to her sister. Misara patted the saddle behind Sari and the younger woman took the hint. She laid down and wrapped her blanket around her. She watched as Misara joined their brother and mother on the other side of the fire. Sari looked up into the sky. The sunset colours had been replaced by a black starry night. Sari hoped that the weather would hold steady until they reached Hashandor. It was nearly the end of the summer, and the refugees had been lucky until now. Rain would fall soon enough. Sari fell asleep with a wish that it would not for another two weeks.