He was dead on his feet by the time they reached the village Brekka. His arm was thrown over Gredir’s shoulders, mainly held up by the Ranger’s strength and determination. Gredir had suggested to the shaman, Tala, that Asher ride her horse, but she refused. When she caught their shocked expressions, she had hurried to explain, “It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s because I can’t let him ride my horse. She’s been trained to accept only one rider, and that rider is me.”
At the time, Asher decided it made sense. Terathen was not ruled by a monarchy like Azkadia. It was made up of several different clans, each chieftain in charge of their own clan. The Head Chief was the closest thing Terathen had to a king or queen. Each warrior had his or her own horse, each animal better trained than the horses that the Rangers used.
Night was falling when they reached Brekka. Tala led them through the streets, keeping her head high and ignoring the strange looks that the villagers gave them as they passed. Asher was too exhausted to notice, or care. All he wanted was to sleep.
They cut through the streets, making their way to a large building set up in the center. As they approached, Asher recognized it as a chieftain’s lodge. The building was circular, with a domed ceiling covered in straw, wood, and leather. There were no windows, but there was a double set of doors, each of them carved with rearing stallions facing one another.
They stopped outside of these doors, Asher’s knees threatening to give out from underneath him at any moment. He leaned heavily against Gredir, his vision blurring. Tala pounded on the doors and they swung open.
The heat rushing from inside of the lodge made Asher nauseous. His legs gave out and he collapsed. Darkness crept in, and for once he didn’t try to fight it as oblivion swept through his mind.
When Asher awoke, sunlight was shining down on him. He was confused for a moment. Then everything came rushing back to him—arriving in Terathen, meeting Tala, and being taken to Brekka. Then he remembered collapsing as the doors to the lodge opened. He groaned and peeled his eyes open, taking in his surroundings.
He was laying next to the firepit in the very center of the lodge, without a sleeping mat or blanket to give him some comfort. He was still dressed in his clothes from the day before, and he noticed for the first time how wild and disheveled he looked. His clothes were rumpled and mudstained, and his hair now hung down to his shoulders.
He looked around the lodge, unsurprised to find that the entire building was one room. Sleeping mats were set up along the outer edges of the lodge, several of them unoccupied. Those that remained were children, sleeping peacefully. The air was heavy with the smell of smoke, incense, and horse.
Asher grunted as he pushed himself to a sitting position. He looked up. Thick, wooden pillars were placed along the ceiling where it began to curve upward. Each pillar was etched with designs of horses and warriors wielding magic and swords, each of them all charging into battle. The walls were covered in pieces of leather armor, furs, weapons, bridles, and art, showing off the characteristics of the current chieftain. There were benches set up along the inner ring of pillars, and at the very front of the lodge was a magnificent, gilded wooden chair.
Just then, the doors leading into the lodge slammed open. Asher caught a brief glance of the rising sun before he was met face to face with a horde of Terathenian warriors, each of them screaming and yelling.
He scrambled to his feet, his veins aching as the magic struggled to be released. After a moment he realized they weren’t screamin battle cries—these warriors were cheering and celebrating! He frowned, watching as they all came into the lodge, waking the children. Instead of screaming and crying, the children jumped right into the celebrations! Asher watched as one little girl with fiery pigtails ran into the waiting arms of her mother and father.
Relief washed through him when he finally caught sight of Gredir. The Ranger hurried over, relief plain on his face as he neared the prince.
“Asher!” Gredir exclaimed. “Thank the gods you’re awake!”
Asher frowned as Gredir clapped him on the shoulder. “What do you mean?” Asher asked. “How long have I been out?”
“Three days,” Gredir said. “The shamans chanted and sang over you for three days to calm your magic. They say it’s the strongest of any warrior they’ve ever seen.”
Asher frowned. He nodded and, glancing around to the crowd of celebrating warriors, he asked, “What did I miss?”
Gredir smiled. “Ah, the bandits from Dead Man’s Pass have followed us here. I was invited to come along with the warriors to help eliminate them. I must say, I’ve never seen such battle prowess among a group of warriors such as I have seen with the Katona warriors!”
“Asher Brennan!” a voice suddenly boomed, rising above the chaos of the crowd. As one, each of the warriors ceased in their celebrations, turning their heads to stare at the young prince.
The crowd parted, revealing a man standing at the base of the gilded chair. He was three inches taller than Asher, with broad, muscled shoulders and a thick chest. He wore leather boots, riding pants, and a sleeveless shirt, with a leather breastplate over it. A bloody sword hung from the man’s belt, and his light brown, gray-streaked hair was tied back in a disheveled half ponytail. His hazel green eyes stared back at him with interest, and somehow Asher knew that if he were looking into a mirror, he’d be seeing himself as an old man.
The surrounding warriors watched as Asher and the chieftain stared at each other. Then, the older man stepped down from the chair and made his way across the lodge towards Asher. The crowd watched, tense, as the chieftain came to a stern halt before the prince. Asher stared up at the taller man, refusing to look down, to submit.
After several moments, the man laughed and clapped Asher on the shoulder. “Just like your mother!” he boomed. He briefly sobered as he said, “She was fierce and determined as well.”
The man laughed again and turned away, heading back to the chair. As he walked he said, “Come, young prince. We must speak. The rest of you, return to your celebrations!”
The crowd cheered and yelled once more, and within moments they began singing and dancing. Asher looked over his shoulder to Gredir, but the Ranger only smiled and nodded, encouraging Asher to go.
A moment later, they reached the chair. The man sprawled across the seat and armrests and smiled up at Asher. “I’m sure you know who I am,” he said.
Asher nodded. “You’re Harold Katona,” he said. My grandfather, he thought, jutting out his chin.
Harold nodded. “I was, and still am, sorry to hear about Aria’s death.” His knuckles turned white as he gripped the edges of the armrests. “If it weren’t for the Head Chief, I would have sent my warriors to Miren Diréthe for war.”
Asher bowed his head, his hands shaking as he tightened them into fists. His magic raged within him, begging for release. After a moment, Harold sighed and said, “I’m sure I know why you are here. But please, enlighten me yourself. Would it have anything to do with your magic?”
Asher nodded. “Yes,” he said. “My magic, it… I can’t let it out.”
Harold frowned. He leaned forward on his chair, resting his forearms on his knees. “What do you mean, you can’t let it out?”
Asher sighed. Suddenly weary, he lowered himself to the floor. Drawing one knee to his chest he said, “I can’t use it. I’ve kept it back for so long, and now when I need it, I can’t call it forward to use.”
Harold nodded. “I understand,” he said. “But know that you can’t use your magic because it won’t come out. You can’t use it because you’re too afraid.”
Asher’s head jerked up. He shot a haughty look to the chieftain and said, “What do you mean I’m too afraid? I’m not afraid to use it, I’m afraid that it will kill me!”
Harold held up a patient hand. “You’re afraid because of how you were raised,” he said. “You were afraid because if you were caught using your magic, you would be executed.”
Asher nodded. “Yes,” he whispered.
Harold smiled. “But there’s no reason to fear now,” he said. “And, in answer to your next question, of course you may stay here and train. Tala!”
A moment later, the female warrior that had saved Asher and Gredir from the bandits stepped through the crowd toward them. She bowed her head to Harold, then gave Asher a quizzical expression. She looked back to her chieftain when he said, “Tala, do you still want to be taken off border patrol?”
Hope flickered across her face for a brief instant. “Yes,” she said.
Harold nodded. “Very well,” he said. He nodded to Asher and said, “This is my grandson, Asher Brennan.”
“Katona,” Asher cut in. Harold frowned and Asher hurried to add, “I want nothing more to do with my father, including his name. If it wouldn’t displease you, I would prefer to be called by my mother’s name.”
Harold nodded, a proud smile on his face. “Very well,” he said. “Tala, this is my grandson, Asher Katona. He seeks guidance. You will train him.”
Tala’s eyes, a deep ocean blue, widened in astonishment. She looked about ready to argue, but she composed herself at the last second. “Very well,” she said.
Harold nodded. “Good.” He turned to Asher and said, “Not only will you learn to use your magic, but you will also learn how to ride.”
Asher frowned. “But I know how to ride,” he said.
Harold smiled. “Not like the Katona warriors,” he said. “You will learn how to ride like one of us, and you will one day claim your own horse. Until then, rest. Your training begins tomorrow morning.”