There had been no warnings, no prophecies, no preternatural superstitions that could have prepared her for this.
One moment, she walked side-by-side with the man who was her squire, enjoying the citrus breeze that twisted past her cheek in the open-air market. The sun had been bright overhead; not a cloud in the sky.
And then the blue turned to brackish grey in all of an instant. It was impossible to say which came first – the crack of thunder or the sheets of rain that fell like a trough being emptied into the wind.
Even in her dreams, she could still hear the townsfolk shouting, could feel the lightning coming by the way her scars prickled and itched. She’d relived this day a hundred times, but no matter how many times she did, she never felt prepared.
It was later known as the ‘Soulburst’ – no doubt a term coined by some scholar in his tower, struck down in black ink by the soft glow of magelight. It was much easier to sum up in words what had happened, than to quantify the actual experience of it. Accountants and officials had a tendency to measure loss in numbers and facts – this many dead, that much gold’s worth of destruction. For Daniyah, there were no numbers, no facts, which could express the impact of that day.
One moment, she was walking through a marketplace; the next, the world was on fire.
“Ho, Singer! A moment of your time?”
The words were rich with musical inflection, pleasant to the ear; she turned, already beginning to shake her head, seeking out the man that lyrical voice belonged to. “I am no Sword-Singer, friend; only a wandering knight. What is it that you need?”
The speaker was not much younger than she was, dressed in the vestments of a desert mystic. His hair was long and wiry, his skin lighter than hers – but it was his smile that stood out, if only for how genuine it seemed. His eyelids were shaped in such a way that he seemed perpetually at ease – an impression that was mirrored by his relaxed stride. She couldn’t help but to mirror his smile, her head canting to the side.
“Not a Sword-Singer? Ah, even better! They’re a serious lot, aren’t they-? So bound by tradition, but can you blame them? There’s too much that’s been lost. Come, come, talk to me, Knight – you might have the answer to my problem.” The way he spoke was mesmerizing; the cadence of his voice was like a song. She arched an eyebrow, acutely aware of the sword at her side – he was entirely too charismatic.
A lone traveler could find trouble with a charismatic stranger.
“Very well, Shaman; if I can help you, I will. I’ve dinner on the fire – it might burn if I’m away too long… would you accept my hospitality for the evening’s meal?”
Courtesy had been trained into her by both Sir Colville and Hakeem. By inviting him to share a meal with her, she easily sidestepped the possibility of an ambush, without being impolite. It was only caution, however –for all his charm, there was something about him that seemed wholly sincere. He offered her a bow, deep enough to indicate respect, and there was gravity in his voice as he answered.
“I would be honored to accept, dame – and I am called Athmir, less a shaman, more a firecaller. Trained in the old desert ways by Degan… perhaps you have heard of him?” His eyebrow lofted hopefully as he straightened.
“You may call me Daniyah; well met, Firecaller Athmir. I am familiar with Degan only in passing – he’s from the northeast of the Alik’r, isn’t he?”
Athmir nodded, following her through the encampment. “That’s him, yes! A fine wizard, though – I do not envy his newest apprentice. He loses more and more of his spirit as the years pass him by, and with it, his memories can be a bit scattered…” He frowned and shook his head, adding quickly “…tough as they come, though, and wise!”
Daniyah smiled, familiar with the breed of man Athmir was describing. The pair threaded their way through canvas pavilions, hastily erected in the shadow of the cliffs. It was a gathering of local Alik’r tribes, and she was interested in keeping up with the particulars – though she belonged to no tribe herself, Alik’r gatherings were always an exciting affair.
At last they came to her camp – it was a humble one, on the outskirts of the moot, as befit her status as an outsider. The smell of heavy spices and cooked beans greeted them, and Daniyah felt some satisfaction at the man’s appreciative sniff; a knight often dined alone, and she’d managed to learn enough of the culinary arts to make her meals palatable. Her horse looked idly on – an old gelding that had been a faithful companion since the early days of her squirehood. Two years, now, she’d been Knighted; she knew that soon, she’d need a new mount.
“Please, sit. It’s nothing grand, but you are welcome to it.” She bowed her head, and turned to rummage through her saddlebags, retrieving a bowl and spoon. Carefully, the woman dished up beans and vegetables, spiced to scorch the tongue of an unwary taster – just as she liked it.
Her guest nodded, murmuring his thanks, and settled on a rock near the embers of her fire, watching the woman from the corner of his eye. Daniyah ate from the pot, using a dagger for a spoon – carefully. A host was gracious, and it wouldn’t have been the first time she’d done so.
“I was hoping you might know of a knight – or a Singer,” he began. Daniyah nodded once, carefully navigating her meal.
“… who might consider taking on a mage as an apprentice.” He finished serenly, and Daniyah nearly cut herself on her impromptu utensil.
“What? Why-?” She blurted, setting down her pot and staring at the mystic suspiciously. “You said yourself, you’ve a mastery of firecalling – what use has a mage for sword-singing? You don’t have the build for it, and what knight would take a full grown man to be a squire-? The Singers start at eleven – you don’t stand the slightest chance!”
“Sep take you both! May you be eaten by savages in Valenwood, may the waters turn to poison in your belly and rot you from the inside out – I won’t forget this! Mark my words, wanderers, you’ve not seen the last of me!”
Athmir glanced sidelong at Daniyah, one eyebrow arching. “… I imagine this is the last we’ll see of him.”
Daniyah shook her head, watching the door close on the squalling man as the guards dragged him away. The sound of the lock turning seemed deafeningly loud as the crowd began to disperse, and she folded her arms across her chest, fixing Athmir with a pointed look. “You should be more careful, dabbling in eastern magic – you know they’d have thrown the case right out if they’d realized just how we came to obtain that evidence.”
Her squire grinned lazily.
In the three years since they’d met, the man had begun to fill out his armor. He’d always be built along slender lines, but not every swordsman was an ox – they worked together to find ways of improving his strength while still playing to his talents.
Unorthodox? Yes. But they’d both learned a great deal by doing so, and he’d even begun to expand his magical repertoire. Doubtless Hakeem would have been horrified at her willingness to go along with all this, but – she’d always had ideas he considered ‘queer’. Being open to magic was one of them; a holdover from her time spent in the bretonic Colville family where magic was merely another tool in their daily lives.
It had taken some time before she’d agreed to squire such an old pupil – he was only two years her junior, after all. But in working with him, she’d gained both a partner and a travel companion who had ended up teaching her as much as she had him; he was patient with her shortcomings as an instructor, and had an intimate knowledge of desert magic that she found fascinating.
And he was as good a man as any to have at her back in a fight, at that.
She shook her head. “Come on, squire. Let’s leave before we overstay our welcome – I heard a rumor about a town east of here. They say there was a rockslide; no doubt they could use our aid right now.”
Her voice was like a whipcrack as she prowled the canyon just beyond the reach of his blade.
In the five short years since she’d taken him on as a too-old squire, Athmir had developed a natural way with the sword that only confirmed that her choice to take him on had been the right one. No, he was no bruiser – he was a serpent, quick and deadly, unphased by opponents larger than himself. The man’s training had stripped him of any residual softness; he was lean and wiry, now, but his advantage was in his speed.
His style was not the same as her own. But then, it wasn’t supposed to be. Where she was tall and broad, he was smaller, and his body wasn’t built to bear the bulk of muscles like hers; where she relied on clever footwork and economy of motion, Athmir could dance circles around her when they sparred. Where she could bear down with force in a pinch, he had no such luxury.
The sword plunged downward, as if to shear through a sternum, and then he was away, the tip of the blade somehow at the level of a man’s hamstrings and slicing wickedly. It was as if his sword was a leaf in Tava’s grasp – yet the man’s sense of control never wavered.
Athmir’s journey to swordsmanship had been hastened by, of all things, the sorcery he’d been trained in. Degan’s methods had been rather more physical than Daniyah would have suspected; the easy cadence of the man’s voice wasn’t the only thing learned at Degan’s behest.
Try as she might, Daniyah couldn’t find fault with his exercise.
“Stop!” Again, her voice seemed too loud in the stillness of the canyon. The man instantly halted, sword held in place – his body was streaked with sweat and dust, but his breath was steady; barely winded. She envied him that.
Though he hadn’t lost his sleepy look and easy grace, Daniyah could feel the man’s intense focus as he watched the edge of his blade. He had rare talent – there was no doubt about it. Were she a different sort of person than she was, Daniyah might have thought it unfair, that he was possessed of so many skills; instead, she felt a quiet certainty that he was gifted by the Gods.
In the troubling times to come, such a man as Athmir might prove to be an avatar of HoonDing himself. There was no doubt that he worked hard to find his talents, but that he had taken only five years to find this level of skill seemed nothing short of a miracle.
She was blessed to have taught him.
“Wash off. It’s time to start thinking on your knighthood, Athmir – your skills are there. Now you must find a deed worthy of the title – a year, two more at most.”
The rain came from nowhere; one moment, the sky was blue. The next, there was a downpour as lightning raced across the bloated black underbelly of black stormclouds that had materialized out of thin air.
Daniyah turned, blinking through the deluge as she struggled to determine what had just happened and how she might help. Everywhere in the marketplace, townsfolk were scurrying to find cover, merchants frantically trying to save their merchandise from the rain. “Athmir! Are you familiar with this sorcery-?”
To call for the aid of her squire was as much instinct as to reach for her sword. Even once his knighthood was complete, they’d agreed to travel together – they were a well-matched duo whose strengths complemented one another nicely.
If she hadn’t moved slightly to the left, the fireball wouldn’t have glanced the side of her cheek; if she’d moved just a little bit more, the flames might have found a new mark in the entirety of her head, and she’d have been burnt alive.
All she could hear in that moment was the roar of the conflagration and the crackling of her skin. She couldn’t feel it – it was as if it were happening to someone else. But there was no time to suffer, no time to even think – another came rapidly after, and already, a market stall was smoldering. If it weren’t for the rain, the dry wooden stalls would have been little more than tinder.
Athmir shot blindly, a man possessed; she could hear screams as she surged toward him. “Stop! Stop, what are you doing-?”
Her voice was a feeble croak, and if heard her, he wasn’t listening. A man in a priest’s vestment lay sprawled across the cobbles, convulsing and frothing from the mouth. She nearly tripped over him. Her face felt strangely cold and was beginning to tingle; she knew she didn’t have much time.
And then she was at his side, shaking him. “Squire! In Leki’s name, stop this!“
When he looked at her, there was no recognition in his eyes. His lips curled against white teeth, forming a terrible grimace; he shoved her away, and began to snarl a spell, tempestuous winds rising at his command. Her heart sank as the rain began to sizzle into steam.
He was raising a firestorm.
The rain would turn to steam and boil them; even if it stopped as suddenly as it began, unimpeded fire and wind would only make the death toll higher. There was no time to hesitate, there was no time to bargain or plead.
As she lurched forward, searing agony erupted in her head where the fireball had connected – a strangled scream emerged from her ruined lips and her vision went briefly white. A heartbeat later, she hit the ground – and Athmir was beneath her.
He’d never been at his best when confronted by brute force.
He snarled like an animal, and thrashed beneath her with an unholy strength, but she’d been fighting far longer than he had; instinct took over where sentiment might have paused her. The dagger at her hip was in her hands, and she was choking him.
She could feel the growl of his throat against her fingers as he struggled to speak incantations that would give him the upper hand, was aware that he was thrashing, but she held him as tight as a mother would her squalling infant, her own features severe as the stink of burned flesh choked her.
With just one motion, his snarling turned to gurgles and his limbs stilled as his throat hemorrhaged all across her hands, coloring them red. She let him go and he babbled voicelessly as his struggles became feeble, eyes gone glassy by the time he fell still.
The blade slipped from her fingers to fall beside the man, and she looked to the bodies, to the smoldering wreckage that littered the town’s square. The rain had stopped. The sky was blue.
Beyond doorways and through the broken soot-smudged windowpanes, she could see a few fearful faces beginning to emerge.
Aware of the eyes upon her battered, burnt form, she knelt stiffly, gaze searching the dead man’s features for something she recognized.
Daniyah bowed her head and drew her trembling fingertips to close his eyes for the last time.