Sari woke with a start. She sat up and looked around. The moon shone brightly in the sky. The fires around the camp were burning low, and the air felt fresh because of it. She could hear snores, and the sounds of the horses, pawing at the ground and nickering. Sari turned to see her chestnut stallion was standing a lot closer than he had been when she went to sleep, ears flicking back and forth, head tossing. She didn't need to reach for her magic to know something wasn't right. She went to Tojido. Placing a hand on his mouth, she stopped the right hook coming her way. When he realised who was holding him, Tojido frowned but Sari shook her head slowly.
"Something's not right."
She went back to her saddle and quietly readied her weapons. She turned back to see Tojido had his katana out and was waking their father. A scream echoed through the night and woke those still asleep around them. Then a low whistle sounded through the air.
But Sari's warning came too late. Shouts of pain sounded across the camp. Then a loud chorus of war cries render the air. Sari cringed at the sudden noise. Her stallion reared up and shook his rope off. Fires lit up the east of the camp and people started to run away from the imperial soldiers. The chestnut stallion moved and came to stand between the fires and Sari, ears flat against his skull and teeth bared. Through the confusion, words reached Sari's ears.
"Get on your horses!"
That last came from her father and with the force of habit, Sari obeyed. She jumped on her stallion's back, and the beast turned neatly around and galloped off. Sari had just enough time to see the rest of her family doing the same. Screams echoed throughout the camp and acrid smoke hang on the wind.
When Sari finally made it through the camp, she fought against her mount to stop and turn around. The stallion reluctantly did as she ordered. Sari looked as people ran past her but she could not see her family anywhere. The noise had intensified to include the clash of weapons. Sari knew the basics of fighting, as she was Tojido's main sparring partner. But she could not go against professional soldiers. She would definitely be killed. She could use a bow, however.
Sari nudged her stallion left and sent him into a trot. She took her bow and nocked an arrow quickly. As she neared the battle she drew on the string, testing the wood and finding the strength she needed to let her arrow loose. She could see the soldiers clearly now, dressed in the red of the Eehar Empire. They were running through the camp, catching all they could find. A group of refugees had taken up arms, fighting to give the others time to get away. But the soldiers had been trained for combat, when her people were farmers and crafters. Sari gritted her teeth and drew her string back. She ordered her mount still then took a deep breath. She sighted one of the soldiers and let her arrow fly.
The arrow bounced off the armoured chest of her intended victim. The Shurakun man took the opportunity and plunged his sword in the imperial soldier's neck. Sari nodded to herself and reached for another arrow. If she could not go through the soldiers' protection, she would give the defenders the opportunities they needed to win. As she sighted another soldier, her stallion moved slightly under her, against all his training. He pawed at the ground, looking to their left and dancing away from whatever he saw. Sari turned that way. A small group of people dressed in red robes were standing away from the battle. And pointing in her general direction. Guessing that someone had seen her arrow, Sari turned her mount around and sent him galloping away. She was no help to anyone dead.
Suddenly, a man shot in front of her. Her mount reared up, hooves flashing at the head of the threat. The man neatly side stepped the attack, then took two steps back. He hadn't finished moving, and Sari's arrow was already trained on him.
"Are you Sari Fuyudo, from Shinka?"
As Sari made no answer, the man put his hands up and turned slightly. Even in the dim glow of the fires, the golden phoenix embroidered at the back of his jacket glittered, symbol of the kingdom of Shurakun.
"I'm Kanyu Suragi. If you are Sari, we need your help launching a counter-attack. We have a few magicians with us and we need your power to add to theirs."
Sari relaxed slightly. Although many knew she was a magic user, few knew about her particular ability. A shout in the distance behind her made her mind up. She nodded at the soldier in front of her and he smiled tightly, then led her quickly deeper into the forest. A group of soldiers were waiting a few lengths inside the trees, weapons drawn. Kanyu held her stallion as she jumped off, then led her to the back of the group. Sari saw two figures that immediately put her mind at ease. She gave a short wave to Ikki, who nodded back with a small smile. She then turned to the older man standing near him.
Sari bowed but the man stopped her with a wave and a grim smile.
"Have you used your powers this night?"
"To soothe the aches of my mother and sister, those of my family's horses, and those of a woman with a sprained ankle. But I have slept well for a few hours. I am willing and ready."
Tsuki nodded at this then signalled to the pile of cushions spread in front of him. Sari sat, put her bow down next to her, and closed her eyes. She loosened her shoulders, then waited. The spell washed over her and she found herself aware of a second heartbeat sounding in her ears as the life-force within her shifted.
"Remember, send a warning though the link before you cut it. Kanyu and a few others will stay here with you. If you are found, break and run. Kanyu is your commanding officer until my return. Is that clear?"
Tsuki nodded again then set off with most of the soldiers. Kanyu came to sit next to her.
"Do you need anything?"
Sari shook her head. "If we are attacked, shake me. I might not hear."
When Kanyu nodded, Sari closed her eyes and let herself slip through the link to Tsuki. With some effort she adjusted to hear and see what he heard and saw, while blocking all other senses. The last thing she needed was feeling him if he got hurt, or smelling the scents of death on the battleground.
The soldiers charged through the trees right into the imperial soldiers. As Sari followed from within Tsuki's mind, the clash of weapons sounded unnaturally dull to her. She had to remind herself that Tsuki did not have her enhanced hearing. The magician paused for a second then reached for magic. Sari turned her mind to the spell, and watched as Tsuki formed her power into a fireball before releasing it.
Watch and learn, Sari!
The young woman smiled at Tsuki's reminder. She watched as he reached in the shimmering gold light that was her power, drew from it, and shaped the energy with his mind – into lightning bolts, shields, ice spears, illusions of more Shurakun soldiers charging – before releasing it into reality.
Then, the fight was over. Sari turned back to see and hear what Tsuki could. Most imperial soldiers had been killed. But as Tsuki looked around carefully, Sari realised that something was missing.
Where are the red robes?
Apart from the main force, to our left, there was a group of five or six people wearing red robes.
How do you know?
I saw them when I tried to help. I think they might have seen me too. But I can't see any robes among the dead.
Many soldiers escaped actually. This group was only an advance party. Tell Kanyu to take you to the next meeting point. I will see you then.
Sari felt the spell end and she was re-situated into her own mind and body. She blinked a few times and rolled her shoulders to loosen them up.
Sari looked up to see Kanyu still sitting next to her. He looked calm, but Sari could feel his slight nervousness.
"We have won this battle. Magician Tsuki asks that you take me to the next meeting point."
Kanyu nodded, then stood and offered Sari a hand. She took it gratefully as the fight had taken a good amount of power from her. She then leaned down to retrieve her bow. Kanyu walked her to her stallion, and Sari jumped onto the back of the warhorse.
"Where did you learn to ride like this?"
Kanyu pointed at Sari. She was riding bareback, and was disregarding the reins, relying on leg commands to direct her mount. She shrugged.
"I train the King's hunting birds, and about half of his warhorses. I know the commands. And I happened to have trained this fellow."
Sari slapped an affectionate hand on the stallion's neck. Kanyu nodded to himself, then he gathered the reins of his horse and jumped into the saddle.
"Where are your things anyway?"
"Back there," Sari said with a shrug and a wave toward the camp.
"Anything you desperately need?"
"I've got everything right here."
Sari pointed at her sword, strapped to her belt, and her bow in her hand. Kanyu nodded and then nudged his horse into a trot. Sari followed suite. Now that the worst had passed, Sari put her mind to remembering the spells Tsuki had shown her in the last few hours. That way, she didn't have to think about what she might have lost back at the camp.
Sari had followed Kanyu though the rest of the night. They had stopped an hour, sometime in the morning, to eat and give the horses some rest. Then they had carried on for the rest of the day. They had left the road, and cut through fields and woods. They travelled in silence, Sari trying and failing to not think about her family. She followed Kanyu as she could do little else. Even if her father had told her to stay on the road if the family was separated, she needed to know why Tsuki had waited so long before attacking. The magicians and the soldiers must have arrived at the camp at the same time as the imperial soldiers, if not before. So why had they not attacked when the imperial troops had. Sari did not believe that Tsuki could not have won without her. Sure, she had more raw power. But he had years of training and hundreds of spells to choose from.
Tsuki had appeared in her life about seven years ago with a letter from King Sankokun. The King had been told by the Magician Hall about Sari's unique talent for magic. He had wanted to know more about what she could do. The law concerning magic users could not be changed. That would be too much trouble. But it could easily be bent. So, by order of the King, Sari had started an apprenticeship of sorts. Tsuki had taken one hour out of each of her days to work with her, under the pretext of teaching her to play chess. They had quickly enough worked out that nifty little spell that allowed Sari into Tsuki's mind. It didn't work quite as well the other way around, but Tsuki had still learnt more about the way Sari's powers worked. And all the while, Sari had learnt to play chess and use magic.
Night was falling once more when Kanyu slowed their advance to a walk. As they neared a small group of trees, Kanyu put a hand up and Sari stopped her chestnut stallion. A hoot sounded through the night. Kanyu answered it with a shrill cry, then signalled her to move again. They rode into the trees and soon enough entered a clearing.
The young woman's head snapped up as her younger brother shouted and ran to her. Sari jumped off her horse and hugged Hishuko. The teenager wriggled his way out, then looked up at her excitedly.
"Did you really help getting rid of the imperial soldiers back at the camp?"
"Who told you that?"
"Tsuki's here. He said you were very helpful, and that the King would probably give you a reward when he was told about it."
Sari frowned as Hishuko carried on talking about her supposed exploits. Tsuki had been back at the camp when he ordered to go. She had been at least . As they entered the camp proper, Sari spotted Tojido and Misara. But Kanyu led her straight to a tent in the middle of the camp. There stood Tsuki with her parents. Shoryo turned to look at her, and nodded his head. But Kaira had tears running down her face as she ran to her youngest daughter and proceeded to crush the life out of her.
"Are you all right? I was so worried. The Magician said you were on your way, but we have been here hours..."
Sari let her mother carry on babbling. While pinning Tsuki with a frown. The magician dipped his head slightly, acknowledging her need to talk. Starting to get embarrassed as Kaira had still not released her, Sari gently sent a few soothing energy waves in her mother's direction. Kaira finally let go of her daughter, and wiped her tears.
Tsuki was standing a few steps away. Sari took a step away from her mother, and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze before following Tsuki into the tent. Inside, a few cushions were scattered on the ground. Tsuki sat and indicated the cushions opposite him. Once Sari was comfortable, Tsuki wave a hand in front of him and a map zoomed from a corner of the tent to land in front of them. It opened and Sari saw the Kingdom of Shuraken and the countries surrounding it. Sari noticed the map was at least ten years old. It still showed the lands of Darkhar, Saresh and Tukin to the west when today, only the Eehar Empire laid this way.
"You have guessed that the timing of my arrival was not quite a coincidence."
Sari looked up to see Tsuki smiling sadly at her and nodded.
"The King highly values your family. You are all talented crafters. To see such skills disappear because of the imperial blades would be a waste."
Sari narrowed her eyes at her teacher as he stopped talking. She watched as he magicked two cups of steaming black tea, added milk and sugar to his, and sweetened hers with honey before placing her cup in front of her. He took a sip, then placed his cup on his right side.
"You know there is more to this. The King, in particular, does not want to see you fall into the hands of the Imperial troops."
Sari frowned, then shook her head. "Because of my magic?"
Tsuki nodded slowly.
"The Empire is well known to be capturing magic users and sending them to the heart of Eehar. They are usually never seen again. As I explained to your parents, the King has known for a long while that Shuraken would fall to the Empire. We do not have the technology or the magic to fight them."
"What about Hashandor?"
Tsuki held up a hand.
"What I'm about to tell you goes no further, not even your parents."
Sari nodded acceptance.
"Our King and Hashandor recognised the danger that is the Empire years ago. Several meetings and countless exchanges of letters have taken place between our countries. Hashandor have created a technology born of magic to fight against the Empire's long ranged weapons. But even with this, Shuraken would have been defeated. Hashandor needed time, more than what they thought we had, in order to mass produce these new weapons.
"Instead, we devised a plan. Hashandor fights better in their mountains. Our King decided to make our last stand there with them. Half of Shuraken's armies have been training over the border. The other half has been trained in guerillas techniques, and given the lands of those who have been evacuated. They have already formed an underground network of communication, which will form the basis of the rebellion in Shurakun. The same was done with the armies from all the countries north of the mountains still free from the Empire.
"So once Shurakun falls, the Empire will see no resistance from the others. They will simply march through the lands to the eastern coast and occupy them. Once they turned their sight to Hashandor, as we know they will, they will find the Kingdom of the Ten Vales full to the brim of soldiers, all eager to re-take their homelands. And the Empire will also face rebellion from within as the soldiers left behind start the uprising."
Tsuki picked up his cup and took another sip of his tea. Sari cocked her head sideways, but remained silent, her gaze on her teacher.
"You want to know what all that has to do with you. It happens that the other lands have sent their magic users to Hashandor. All powerful magic users would be too much of an asset to the Empire if captured. Shurakun, contrarily to all our neighbours, does not train magic users unless it is their chosen career path. Because we have only weak Sources on our lands, none of our magic users are born with great energy reserves. We become powerful as we train. Consequently, our magicians have been evacuated, but the magic users are being left to choose. All except for you...
"You came up in the very first talk held between Hashandor and us after we discovered of your potential. You were too young to be sent away or be trained. So we found a way around. You now know the basic mechanisms behind magic. You can use your raw power to shape any spell you are shown. All you need is the understanding of biology to use healing spells. We need to get you to Hashandor so your powers may be used in our cause, not that of the Empire."
Sari slowly reached for her cup of tea and took a large gulp. Far more was going on that she had ever imagined. And suddenly she had become someone important in the grand scheme of things. She may never be a queen, but she definitely wasn't a pawn anymore. She was a rook, or a knight maybe.
"So what now?"
"We take you and your family to Hashandor by the most direct route. The Shurakun armies have deployed across the countryside to buy us as much time as possible. Other magicians and soldiers are rounding up the remnant of your refugee group as we speak. At dawn, we move out. Each new group will take different routes to Hashandor. If the Imperial troops know about you and attacked this night to get their hands on you, this will hopefully confuse them enough to give us enough time to reach Hashandor safely. Then, your magical training will truly start."
"Against the laws of Shurakun?"
Tsuki shook his head sadly. "By the time we make it to Hashandor, Sari, there won't be a kingdom of Shurakun."
Sari sagged slightly. She reached for her cup once more and drained it, even as Tsuki finished his.
"Let Kanyu know what equipment you need and he will make sure you get it. We leave at first light."
Sari nodded then stood and made for the exit. But even as she drew the flap out of her way, she stopped and straightened.
"You're wrong you know."
"Shurakun. As long as we – the people of Shurakun – live, then so does our country."
Dawn came too soon for Sari's liking. Although the rest of the night had been uneventful, and she was well rested, she couldn't shake the guilty feeling that hundreds of people were about to become Imperial troops bait to give her a chance to get away safely. This stood badly with her Shurakun pride. She was supposed to help them, not put them in danger.
"That's what happens when you get promoted in the army, youngster."
Sari turned slightly to look at Kanyu. The soldier wore a sad smile.
"That guilty feeling," he continued. "As you progress through the ranks of an army, you will more and more have to decide when to endanger or even sacrifice the soldiers that are fighting under you. This guilty feeling will help you weigh the consequences of your decisions. Never lose it. But don't let it prevent you from doing what must be done either. Find the balance, and you will make a great general."
Sari nodded slightly in thanks. She stroked the nose of her stallion slowly as their group was getting ready to move out. She had been given a new saddle, and enough arrows to fill her quiver to the brim. She also now owned a light lance. In case they had to charge through something, she had been told. But she knew it wouldn't be something.
Tsuki finally gave the signal, and Sari mounted her horse along with the others. They now formed a group of fourteen: Sari and her family, Tsuki and Ikki, Kanyu, and another five soldiers. All the soldiers had changed from their uniforms into plain travelling clothes. Sari assumed it had to do with the ruse.
As they started to ride, Kanyu moved his horse beside Sari's.
"So, I really should thank you for training some of our finest warhorses."
Sari looked at him then at his mount. He was riding a dappled grey warhorse. She remembered training him a few years back. He had been fine with her but according to her sources at the cavalry training camp, it had taken a long time before the stallion had let anyone ride him. She wasn't surprised it had taken someone like Kanyu. He had a soft hand, but seemed to be just as stubborn as his horse when needed. After all, he was still trying to do small talk with her although she hadn't really spoken to him unless it was necessary.
"Many of us have been saved by our horses over the last few years. Apparently the Imperial cavalry does not train their beasts for war. Most of them recoil from the smell of blood, and the sounds of battle. I admit that our light cavalry suffer from the same disadvantage. But your warhorses are steady as rock even in the heart of battle. And I have seen many times one of our warhorses standing over their fallen rider to protect them until help arrives. Or die trying."
Sari shook her head slightly.
"Then those horses loved their riders. I can teach them to stand their ground and protect their rider. No one can force them to do so in the heart of battle, when all their instincts will tell them to flee."
"True enough, I suppose. But you have trained them to be well behaved at least. Why, we have seven stallions in the group, and a fight has yet to break."
Sari gritted her teeth and didn't answer. The problem was she had expected a fight. There should have been one, with so many stallions. Sari had softly felt out the horses through the life-force and she could only feel protectiveness from them. Toward her. Tsuki had been too busy for her to tell him of her discovery. Ikki was just as preoccupied. So she had decided to wait. But something was not right.
"What's his name?"
Kanyu's words broke through her thoughts, and Sari turned to him.
"Your stallion. What's his name?"
"I don't know. We weren't told their names when they were given to us."
"So what have you been calling him?"
"The chestnut one."
Kanyu laughed and Sari nearly jumped in her sadly at the loud noise.
"And I suppose the others are the black, the white, the roan, the brown and the grey?"
Sari smiled slightly and nodded. Kanyu continued to laugh softly for a few minutes before he calmed down. And Sari decided that, if she had to run away from her homeland, at least Kanyu would be good company. The next few hours passed amicably. Sari told him about her childhood, including her clandestine magic training. He told her more about himself. He had been a soldier for nearly twenty-five years, and had fought against Darkhar when they had tried to 'reclaim' a part of Shurakun. That war had not lasted long as the Empire had then attacked Darkhar from the West. He had a daughter and three grand-sons. They had safely been evacuated a few weeks back, so he wasn't too worried about them. He was only hoping to see them again soon. Sari listened to his war stories, and when both had grew bored with them, they had started to think their way through a few games of chess.
They had been riding in silence for an hour or so, eating their lunch in the saddle as Tsuki refused to stop, when Sari felt her mount tense up. The rest of the horses suddenly shifted, gathering around Sari, to the surprise and exasperation of their riders. Nothing the humans did made any difference. The horses would not to return to their previous positions. Sari closed her eyes and plunged into the life-force, becoming conscious of the horses' nervousness. Something had caught at their senses. A smell and a disturbance in the life-force. On their right. Something the horses could sense instinctively. Something they disliked because its focus was Sari.
As Sari lightly reached for the source of the disturbance, and was violently pushed back. She felt herself reel in the saddle. As she opened her eyes, she found Kanyu holding her steady on her horse, Tojido and Misara looking at her worryingly. All three were bathed in lights, shimmering softly. Sari closed her eyes again, and tightened her fingers on her reins.
Sari sent the command through the life-force, and the horses responded to her command before their riders even could process it. They surged to the left as one, galloping away from danger and into a field. Still immerse in the life-force, Sari felt surprise and anger surging from the disturbance. Then determination.
The shout came from one of the soldiers behind her. Sari forced her mind back into her body, then risked a look over her shoulder. A small group of riders wearing red were riding after them. Tsuki and Ikki maneuvered their horses, placing themselves at the rear of their group. Then they raised magical shields to protect their group. They got in place just in time as a fireball came flying their ways. Several others followed.
"Don't strike back. Just ride."
Sari heard Tsuki's instructions. She leaned forward into her saddle, wrapped the reins around her wrists, then flowed back into the life-force. She followed the energy waves to her horse and those of her party and started to soothe the ache in their legs even as they ran. Then she followed the waves to the imperial horses. Careful not to be noticed by the magician in red, Sari started to slowly sap the strength of the imperial horses, slowly transferring it into her body.
She heard shouts of victory as the members of her group realised the imperial soldiers were slowing down. And she felt a backlash of anger and frustration through the energy waves forming the life-force as the imperial magician realised he was losing his quarry. Sari closed herself off the life-force and concentrated on riding. She glanced to her right to see Tsuki riding abeside her, and frowning blackly at her. Sari just smiled smugly at him, and carried on riding.
Once they had put enough distance between them and the imperial soldiers, Tsuki ordered a halt to give the horses a rest. Without prompting Sari went to stand by herself, warning off her younger brother with a shake of her head when Hishuko made to join her. Soon enough, Tsuki and the other magician came to find her.
"Why didn't you follow my orders back then?"
"You didn't. I'm attuned to you enough to know when you're using magic. You didn't join us shielding. You fought the imperial magician."
"You said, and I quote: 'Don't strike back. Just ride.' Having been given the order not to fight, I used my magic to enable us to follow your second order for as long as possible."
Ikki chuckled softly as he realised what Sari had done.
"You used your magic to heal the horses as they galloped."
"I can't heal anyone or anything. I haven't been taught biology. But I can take the pain and fatigue away for a while."
"I sensed you going to the imperials."
"Not to the imperials, Tsuki. To their horses. I took their strengths to replace what I was giving our mounts. Wouldn't do for me to get too tired to back you up, would it?"
Tsuki gaped at her. Ikki could not help laughing at this.
"You're the one who tested and trained her. You must have known that her increased access to the life-force would enable her to do something like this. Damn Tsuki, why do you keep under-estimating the two of us. You taught us all we know, but you constantly forget how different Sari really is."
Sari smiled slightly at her training partner. Ikki was only a few years older than her, and very happy to be the lesser magician in their little group. Tsuki shook his head, then looked up at the sky.
"It's about four. Are you feeling well enough to carry for another few hours?"
"I'm fine. The energy I gave our mounts, I more or less replace with what I took from the imperial horses. I'm more worried about my mother. She's not used to long and hard riding."
Tsuki nodded as he looked toward Kaira. She had apparently refused to come down her horse. Sari suspected she was afraid she wouldn't be able to get back on.
"All right. We'll ride on slow. But make sure you don't pull a stunt like that again."
Sari wisely said nothing, but Ikki was still laughing behind his hand.