He squinted against the brightness of the sun as he stepped out of the lodge. He raised a hand against the sun and blinked several times, allowing his eyes to adjust to the light. When he lowered his hand, he looked out at the village before him.
Brekka was the village of the Katonas. It was small, with no more than seven huts surrounding the chieftain’s lodge. Ahead of him and to the far west were a few patches of farmland, and Asher spotted several men, women, and children tending to the crops. He looked to his right, to the north. There was a large herd of horses, each of them various different colors, shapes, and sizes. To the south, Asher saw archery targets neatly lined up at the edge of a strip of dirt. Asher watched as young men and women on horseback raced at the targets at breakneck speed, shooting the targets with deadly accuracy that could rival the Rangers.
“Good morning,” a voice mumbled from his right. He jerked his head around, relieved when Tala stepped out of the shadows. She wore simple brown boots, dark brown leggings, and a tan, sleeveless shirt. Her dark brown hair was tied back in a thick, high messy ponytail, and draped around her neck was a thin, lightweight bridle with split reins.
“Good morning,” Asher responded, turning his attention back to the village.
Tala stepped up beside him and said, “Where’s Gredir?” Her ocean eyes were narrowed, scanning the village for any sign of the Ranger.
“He left during the night,” Asher replied. He looked down at her and said, “We both have a friend that’s in trouble, and he’s gone to help her.”
Tala nodded. “I see,” she said. She scrutinized him for a moment and asked, “How are you feeling?”
He shrugged. “Stable, for the most part. I still feel lightheaded and nauseous, but my veins aren’t on fire at the moment.”
She nodded again. “Good,” she grunted. “Good. we may be able to dispel some of your magic today, if we’re lucky.”
Asher grinned. “That’s good,” he said. The sooner he could rid himself of some magic, the better. Maybe then he could start learning how to use it and not nearly die in the process.
He jerked his head to the fields and said, “I thought all members of the Katona Clan are warriors?”
Tala chuckled and said, “Because you’re an outsider, I won’t stab you for that comment. We are warriors. However, we are also farmers, as well as healers and magicians.”
Asher frowned, looking at her again. “How?” he asked.
She smiled. “We all contribute,” she said. “Every child works the fields in the mornings with some of the warriors, and in the afternoons they ride or train, whether it’s in combat or magic. There’s no limit to our training or capabilities. If there’s time for learning something, and we so wish to do so, then we study.” She laughed softly. “I know many children who are better healers and magicians than me.”
“How old are you?” Asher asked. Looking at her now, she couldn’t be much older than him.
She grinned. “I’m twenty-two,” she said. “And I’ve been a Katona warrior my entire life.”
He nodded. “What about the tattoos?” he asked. He never noticed much before, but now he could see she was covered in them. She had black flames covering her neck, shoulders, and arms, and some even traveled up onto her cheeks. She had a three bands around her lower forearms, one black, one white, and one gray. She had a Tersenian dragon tattooed on her left bicep, and a white rearing mare on her right.
“Each one tells a story,” she said. “Some are marks I received after various types of training, and some tells a personal story.”
Asher nodded again. “I see,” he said.
She laughed. “Maybe,” she said. She gestured to the few stairs leading to the street. “Shall we?”
Asher followed as Tala made her way down the stairs. She turned right, leading Asher past the nearest hut and towards the herd. There were no fences in sight, and yet they all seemed to be kept in one area by some unseen force.
“Are there magical wards?” Asher asked. When Tala gave him a strange look he said, “To keep them in one place, I mean. Is there a magical fence?”
She stared at him a moment, then burst out laughing. “No,” she said after a moment, wiping at a tear. “No, there’s nothing keeping them there. Nothing except us. You must understand, Asher Katona. We Terathenians are horse people. Each clan’s herd views the people as a part of the herd. You’ll notice we don’t ever use saddles, and we don’t usually use bridles, either.”
Asher frowned. “Why not?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it be easier to control the horse with a bridle or saddle?”
Tala shook her head. “No,” she said. “Because we don’t control them.”
“I don’t understand,” Asher complained.
Tala sighed. “And you won’t until you start riding,” she grumbled. “Come on. I have a horse for you until you claim one of these mestenos as your own.”
“Mesteno?” Asher asked.
She nodded. “It’s Old Terathen for ‘wild horse’. That’s what we call every unclaimed horse.”
“Ah…” Asher blinked and shook his head, amazed. I have much to learn, he thought.
Several horses shied away from Asher and Tala as they approached, putting their ears back against their heads. Recognizing the signs of aggression, Asher froze. When she realized he wasn’t behind her, Tala stopped and turned back.
“They won’t hurt you,” she said. “They’re just telling you to stay back.”
“Then why are we here?” he asked, his voice rising slightly.
She smirked. “Because they’re protecting the brood mares in the center,” she said. “They’re training horses for new, young warriors learning how to ride like us.”
“Oh…” Asher gave the nearby horses a wary look and said, “You’re sure they won’t attack?”
“Yes,” Tala sighed, exasperated. “Now, come on. We have much to do today, and so little time.” She turned and strode away, ignoring the warning nickers of nearby horses. Deciding the warrior knew more about them than he did, Asher followed.
When they reached the center of the herd, Tala released three, short whistles. An answering neigh cut through the herd, and then a bay mare stepped through, her head high and ears pricked forward. She approached Tala, whinnying shrilly as she bobbed her head up and down. Tala laughed and held a hand out, murmuring softly in a foreign language to the horse.
“This is Maya,” Tala said to Asher as she slipped the bridle over Maya’s head. Asher noticed there was no bit. “She’ll be your trainer horse until you claim one. Come here.”
Asher stepped forward, eyeing the mare warily. Maya’s nostrils flared and she jerked her head back, neighing in surprise. Asher froze and stared at Tala, questioning.
“Hold your hand out,” Tala said. “Let her come to you.”
Asher did as she said. He held his hand out towards the mare, allowing her to stretch her neck out towards him. She sniffed his hand, her hot breath tickling his fingers. After several moments that seemed like forever, she stepped forward and pressed her soft, velvety nose against his palm. He smiled and Tala laughed.
“I knew it,” she said.
“Knew what?” Asher asked, stroking Maya’s neck. She nickered softly, bobbing her head in approval.
“That Maya would like you,” she said. “There’s not a lot of people that she’d dislike, but it’s always better to play safe. Now, go ahead and lead Maya out of the herd, towards the village. Wait for me.”
“What do you mean?” Asher asked, suddenly frightened. “Tala!”
She ignored him as she disappeared into the herd. Nearby horses gave Asher strange looks, and he felt extremely nervous. He had been around many horses in his life, but none of them appeared as intelligent as these animals.
He took a hold of Maya’s reins and began walking away, grumbling to himself. She nickered and followed, giving no resistance at all. If it weren’t for him occasionally looking over his shoulder to ensure the mare was following, he wouldn’t have known if she was there or not.
He stopped a good, short distance from the herd. Maya nickered and bumped her nose against his shoulder before turning her head to watch the herd. Asher rested a hand on her neck, stroking along with the hair pattern. After several moments, a shrill whinny filled the air, and a young, sleek mare burst from the herd.
Tala laughed wildly, throwing her hair back as the mare cantered towards Asher and Maya. She threw her arms to the side, holding onto the horse with nothing but her legs.
The chestnut mare slid to a stop, pawed at the ground with her hoof, then reared slightly as she neighed. Maya whinnied in response, dancing in place as she greeted the chestnut.
Tala laughed as the mare touched the ground with all four hooves again. She patted her neck and smiled at Asher. “I would like to introduce you to my best friend,” she said. “Asher, meet Ember. Ember, this is Asher. We’ll be training him.”
Ember stared at Asher with deep, golden brown eyes. Her long mane and tail swayed with the slight breeze, and the sun caused her coat to appear golden red. She had a white star on her forehead, but the rest of her was red.
Asher held a hand out towards Ember, allowing her to smell him. She sniffed his hand, then shook her head and stepped forward. She bumped her nose against his shoulder, then she raised her head above him.
Tala laughed. “She likes you,” she said. “She thinks you’re like a foal.”
“Is that why she’s standing over me like that?” he asked.
“Yes,” Tala said while Ember nodded in answer to Asher’s question.
He laughed. “You’re beautiful,” he said, feeling brave enough to reach out and stroke her neck. She nickered in response and nibbled at his hair.
“Don’t boost her ego,” Tala warned. “It’s big enough already. Now, why don’t you hop up onto Maya, and we’ll get started.”
Asher nodded, stepping away from Ember. The mare started to follow him, but Tala squeezed her legs and the horse stopped. Ember turned her head, almost glaring at her. Asher chuckled and turned to Maya, patting her neck. Maya nickered and Asher moved to her side. He gripped a handful of her mane, placed a hand on her back, and pulled himself up.
He swayed as he settled himself onto Maya’s back, feeling lightheaded. Tala narrowed her eyes and asked, “Are you all right?”
Asher nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I’m fine. Only a little dizziness, but I’m fine.”
She stared at him a moment, then nodded. “We’ll grab something to eat before your magic lesson,” she said. “For now, go ahead and let the reins go.”
“Just do it,” she snapped.
Ashed did as she said, allowing the reins to fall onto Maya’s withers. Tala nodded and said, “A lot of what we do in riding is with our legs. As you can see, I don’t even have a bridle on Ember at the moment.”
“Then what are the bridles for?” Asher asked.
“Training, mostly,” she said. “We have bridles so the children can feel like they have some sort of stability when they first start learning. Sometimes, if a warrior is on patrol, we’ll use the bridle as a security measure. We may come across someone else from another clan, and our horses are very… aggressive.”
Asher nodded. “Makes sense,” he mused.
She nodded. “It does,” she said. “Now, ignore the reins. Fold your arms if you need to, but I want you to squeeze your legs together ever so slightly, and mind your balance.”
He frowned. After giving her a strange look, he sighed and did as she said. He squeezed, and Maya lurched forward. He cried out, reaching forward to grab her mane. She stopped, then turned her head to give him a look. What are you doing? She seemed to ask.
Tala laughed. “That was good,” she said, coming up alongside him. “Now, do it again. More softly this time. She’ll start to walk, and when she does, release the pressure.”
Asher released a breath. He squeezed again, more gently this time. Maya stepped forward, walking slowly this time. He released the pressure, and she continued to walk at a slow, steady pace.
“Good!” Tala exclaimed. Ember kept pace, seemingly bored. Tala smiled and said, “If you want to go faster, squeeze a little more.”
He did as she said, taking Maya as fast as a brisk walk. As Asher and Tala rode around the area surrounding Brekka, Tala gave him instructions, describing how every small movement he made was a command. She taught him how to move forward, then backward. She showed him how to make the horse step straight to the sides, and then how to turn, using only his legs and minimal hand movements.
After he had gained a comfortable rhythm with Maya, Asher asked, “How long does it take to train your horses?”
Tala shook her head. “We don’t train them,” she said. “Not our own horses that we claim, anyway. We’ll teach the training horses how to respond to movements, but everything we do is on our own.”
Asher frowned. “I still don’t understand how, without any training, you can just ride a horse you pick.”
Tala frowned. “I didn’t choose Ember,” she said. “Ember chose me.” When Asher frowned in confusion, Tala went on to explain, “Our connection to our horses is somewhat similar to the bond between a Fireborn and their dragon. Now, we may not have a mental connection, but there is a spiritual one. When I claimed Ember, I was sixteen. That’s how old every warrior is when they get their horse. You go out into the herd, and you walk around until you find a horse that challenges you.”
“Challenges you?” Asher echoed.
Tala nodded. “Yes,” she said. “When a horse challenges you, it means they’re choosing you to be their rider. In order to ride them, you have to claim them. You use every bit of training and instincts you have, and you must find a way onto the horse’s back. Once you share your first ride, the horse will accept no other rider.” She smiled and patted Ember’s neck.
While Tala continued instructing Asher, he thought about what she had said, and he couldn’t help but feel determined. He wanted to make it work, living and training with the Katonas. Somehow, just riding with Tala, he felt like he might be welcome.
As they rode back to Brekka, Asher heard a fierce neigh from the north. He and Tala jerked their heads around, watching as a large, pitch black stallion raced along the plains. Tala gasped and stopped Ember, staring at him. Asher copied her, glancing between the stallion and Tala. She had an awed, enraptured look upon her face, her eyes wide in amazement.
“It’s him,” she whispered.
“Who?” Asher asked.
She stared at him, eyes still wide. “Shetan,” she breathed.
“Who’s Shetan?” Asher asked.
Tala sighed, then looked back to where the stallion had been. One moment, he was there, and then he disappeared without a trace.
“Shetan is one of the most legendary horses in our culture,” she said. “Maybe the most legendary.” She urged Ember forward and Asher followed, still staring at the place where the stallion disappeared.
“What’s the legend?” Asher asked.
“Shetan was the first horse,” she said. “He’s the sire of all horses, and a mighty, magical creature. Whenever Terathen is threatened by foreign enemies, Shetan chooses one warrior to ride him into battle, to help give strength and speed to the people.”
Asher nodded, still smiling at her awe. She remained silent as they returned to Brekka, her eyes forward. But Asher looked back. When they were near the village, he watched the stallion race to the top of a hill. He seemed to materialize out of thin air! As Asher looked back at the mighty stallion, he couldn’t help but feel like the horse was watching him as well.
“Now, then! Time for your first magic lesson.”
Asher followed Tala as she led him around the back of the chieftain’s lodge. As they rounded the building, Asher saw a large, beautiful grove much like the one he had woken up in when Tala brought him and Gredir to Terathen. There were a few small trees, with bushes, flowers, and a small pond. She directed Asher to sit before the pond and he did so, crossing his legs underneath him when she did so.
“Now,” she started, “here’s what I want you to do. Look at the water.”
He did as she said, noticing the fish for the first time. They were long, with beautiful fins and scales of various colors. As he watched the fish Tala said, “Focus on one of the koi. It doesn’t matter which one you choose, so long as you stay with it. Have you chosen your fish?”
“Yes,” Asher said. There was a beautiful gold and umber colored koi, one of the largest fish. As he followed the movements of the koi, Tala continued in her instructions.
“Breathe in, slowly and deeply. Ignore everything but the koi and my voice. As you watch the koi swim between the others, I want you to reach for your magic. Allow it to follow the movements of the koi.”
He frowned in confusion, but did as she commanded. As his eyes tracked the koi, he reached down for his magic, searching for it. He found it coiled in a tight ball, just behind his naval. He inhaled, willing the magic to move with his breathing. As he exhaled, he felt the magic shift and flow outwards, spreading to the rest of his body. His veins burned, and he hissed in discomfort.
“Ignore it,” Tala snapped. “Focus on the koi. Watch how it ignores everything in its path. Your magic is the koi. Follow it.”
Asher inhaled again, forcing his exhale to be twice as long. He searched for his magic again, feeling as it began to burn along his veins again. He watched the koi, watching as it swam freely. As he focused on the movements of the koi, he felt his magic twisting and turning in the same movements of the koi.
The magic continued to burn his veins, searching for a way out. He focused on his breathing, watching the koi at the same time. The koi began to swim faster, its movements in tune with Asher’s magic. His veins continued to burn, and the hairs along his arms and neck rose. The air crackled in response, and the magic began to churn faster and faster, spiraling closer to his chest, to his heart.
He cried out and suddenly, the burning sensation was gone. A deep, sonic explosion shook the grove, causing the trees and bushes to bend away from him before returning to their original position. He blinked once, and as he opened his eyes, he gasped in shock.
His skin seemed to be buzzing, the hairs still raised. His veins no longer burned, but they felt warm, alive. He felt a soft breeze pass through, the cool kiss brushing against his cheeks. His chest heaved as he glanced around, his gaze finally settling on Tala. She was smiling, nodding in approval.
“What happened?” he asked.
“You allowed your magic to pass through its course,” she said. “You’ve been holding it back, whether it was conscious or not, for so long that it didn’t know what to do.”
“Why did you have me watch the koi?” he asked. “What was the purpose?”
“The koi was something to focus on,” she said. “So that you didn’t pay much attention to your magic, so it could do what it needed to do. How do you feel?”
He paused, frowning. He no longer felt light-headed or nauseous. He wasn’t fatigued, like he had been for what must have been years. He felt alive and free, and… “Hungry.”
She laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s normal.”
He smiled. “Now what?” he asked.
Tala stood and brushed off her pants. Asher stood as well, feeling as if he would take off flying. She grinned and said, “Now, your training can begin.”