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Ashar is sent to tame Lord Varador's unruly mount.
By Kira Morningstar
Chapter 2: Taming Nash
Benthem removed Ashar’s manacles and chains in the bath hall, tossing them aside.
“You won’t need to wear those any more, provided you continue to be obedient,” he remarked.
Ashar nodded gratefully, relieved that he was not expected to wear the chains. He knew he was still enslaved, but somehow he felt less like a captive once he was freed of his shackles.
His bath was extraordinarily pleasant, for Lord Varador had built the bath hall around a hot spring, and the water contained natural salts that were soothing to the skin. The water had been scented with frankincense and other oils that Ashar found particularly comforting. He was usually very meticulous about grooming, so it had been distressing for him to be unable to wash for two days.
Miqah came with new clothes for him, a fine white tunic hemmed with an embroidered design of brown and gold interlocking squares, and started to take away his other clothes.
“My pouch,” Ashar pleaded, pointing toward the leather purse that was fastened to the belt he had been wearing.
Miqah held up the red leather pouch. “This? What’s in it?”
“My lythia, and my prayer scrolls.”
Miqah raised a brow. “You play the lythia?” He flipped open the flap of the pouch to examine the contents and pulled out the small flute-like instrument, turning it over in his hands.
“Yes, I play,” Ashar answered.
“Interesting. Not many people play the lythia, these days. Do you use it to tame the animals?”
Ashar nodded. “Sometimes.” This was true, but Ashar mostly played the instrument for his own enjoyment and as part of his daily worship of Omah.
“It’s rather plain, though, isn’t it? Lord Varador has some spectacular lythias in his own collection. Perhaps he will allow you to play one of them.”
Ashar made no reply. His father had given the lythia to him—he had made it himself. He wouldn’t trade it for any other instrument in the world.
“I’m not sure you should keep these scrolls,” Miqah remarked, as he pulled out the small drawstring-closed bag that housed the prayer scrolls.
“Please,” Ashar pleaded, “I use them every day.”
“I don’t see the harm in it,” Benthem asserted, as he splashed water on his face. “Lord Varador has no prohibitions against the worship of any gods.”
Miqah put the scrolls and the lythia back in the pouch. “It would please him if you made prayer scrolls for him. I can get you the materials you need.”
“Prayer scrolls are only for Omah,” Ashar replied. “I cannot make them for Lord Varador.”
Miqah glanced at Benthem. “You do realize, you will be expected to bow before the statue of Varador in his temple?”
“I only bow before Omah. I will not enter any temple to Varador.”
“You will lose your life if you disobey Varador’s command,” Miqah pressed.
“Then I will prepare to die.”
Miqah sighed loudly, looking again to Benthem. “Can you talk some sense into him?”
Benthem was soaping himself down, avoiding eye contact with Miqah. “What’s there to discuss? He seems to have already made up his mind.”
“What are we going to do, if he is killed? We’ll be ruined. Even now Varador’s enemies are conspiring against us. If we can’t tame those horses—”
“Lord Varador knows the situation. Do you really think he’s going to kill this boy now when he obviously needs him?”
Ashar listened to the discussion with wide eyes, his heart once again thumping hard, so loud that he could hear the drumming in his ears. Would he really be put to death for failing to enter the temple? Or was it true that Varador needed him, and for that reason would spare him? But what would happen to him once the animals were tamed?
Now Miqah appealed to Ashar again. “You’re thinking about this in the wrong way. It doesn’t have to mean anything. You just enter the temple, bow, and leave. Your god will understand.”
Ashar choose not to answer, keeping his gaze averted. In fact, he was quite certain Omah would not understand. Omah was a jealous god. He would not be pleased if Ashar were to bow down to Varador. No, he couldn’t do that. He didn’t want to die, but he knew that it was better to die doing what was right, than to live by doing what was wrong. In fact, he had no other choice, for after his death—which would come one day eventually no matter what he did—it would be Omah that he would face, not Lord Varador.
“We all must make sacrifices,” Miqah said quietly. The man seemed to be lost in thought for a moment, staring ahead of him as though seeing something far in the distance.
When Ashar didn’t reply, Miqah seemed to lose interest in the conversation, wandering off while Benthem and Ashar continued to bathe in silence.
Something about Miqah’s manner made Ashar wonder about the man. He found himself thinking about his missing limb, though he wasn’t sure why the thought had come into his mind. “Benthem,” he asked finally, “that man, Miqah. Was he born without his arm?”
Benthem jerked his head up, as though surprised by the question. “No,” he answered, a bit stiffly.
“How did he lose it?”
The man was silent for a moment, a strange expression on his face. “That is not my story to tell,” he answered, looking away.
Ashar sensed by Benthem’s manner that he did not want to talk about it, for some reason, so he let the subject drop.
After they had dressed, they went down to the castle courtyard to the lord’s stable. They could hear the horses even before they entered the dwelling. The animals were restless, some of them rearing up and kicking their stalls.
Benthem glanced at him as they approached the building. “I hope you’re as gifted as people say.”
“How long have they been like this?” Ashar asked.
“For a few weeks. It seems to be getting worse. But this is nothing compared to what’s happening on the north front. You’ll be going there, when you’re finished here. Lord Varador is joining his cohort there.”
Although Ashar might have guessed this, he was actually surprised by this news. He was accompanying Lord Varador to his men on the north front? To the borderlands of Midnight Forest, at the very door of Lord Drake’s domain?
As soon as he entered the stable, a noticeable calm settled over the animals. They watched him, still snorting and shaking their heads, but less agitated than they had been even moments before.
“Extraordinary,” Benthem murmured.
“Which one is the lord’s mount?” Ashar asked.
Benthem pointed out the mare, a white horse with a black mane and tail that seemed more anxious than any of the other horses. She was snorting and moving from side to side in her stall.
“Her name is Nash,” Benthem commented.
At this, Nash reared up, releasing an ear-splitting neigh.
Ashar moved a few steps toward the horse, and then stopped. He opened the pouch at his belt and took out his lythia, and then he began to play it.
The effect on the mare—in fact, on all the animals in the stable—was almost immediate. The beautiful, haunting music calmed them. Nash still picked up her hooves and nodded her head, but she had quieted.
Slowly, Ashar approached the mare as he continued to play. After a few minutes he stopped playing and put his hand out to stroke the mare’s head.
Nash accepted him, nudging his hand in pursuit of treats.
Ashar grinned, looking back at Benthem, who was standing some distance away, arms crossed on his chest with a look of awe on his face.
“She wants something to eat.”
“Give her some apples,” Benthem suggested, pointing to a wooden barrel of old fruit that was situated up against one of the walls.
Ashar retrieved a few apples and let the horse eat out of his hand as Benthem looked on in disbelief.
The man shook his head, slowly approaching the mare. “I don’t know how you did that. No one could even get near her. What’s your secret? How do you do it?”
Ashar shrugged. “I don’t know.”
The man reached out tentatively, surprised when the mare allowed him to touch her. “I wonder how long this will last?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“If you can keep her like this when Lord Varador comes to ride her, he will be very pleased.”
“I can try.”
“I want to tell him about this right away. I don’t think he expected you to tame her so quickly. He’ll want to see for himself. But I’m not sure how she’ll react to Varador. She’s been…rather unpredictable around him.”
Ashar puzzled over this, stroking the mare’s forehead as he continued to feed her. “Do you mean she reacted more strongly to him than to anyone else?”
Benthem nodded. “Yes. It was the same way with his dogs. He had to put them down.”
“Animals sense things that we don’t. Perhaps there is something about him—”
“You mustn’t say that,” Benthem interrupted, lowering his voice to a whisper. “We don’t talk about whythis is happening.”
Ashar nodded. “I see.”
“Good,” Benthem replied. “That music you were playing—what was it?”
“Oh, just something I dreamed up. Nothing special.”
“It was extraordinary. Lord Varador will want to hear it. He enjoys music.”
“I would be happy to play for him.”
Benthem studied Ashar for a moment, as if debating what to say. “You’re an interesting boy,” he said finally. “You’ve accepted your situation without resistance. Yet you…still stand by your beliefs. There are not many people like you. And your power over animals—I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Ashar smiled at him, a little embarrassed by his praise. It was unexpected, and he wasn’t sure what to say. In the next instant the moment was gone. Benthem took a step back and seemed to be distancing himself from him.
“Stay here. I’ll bring Lord Varador,” he said, backing away.
Ashar turned back to Nash, smiling at the way the mare was nuzzling against him. She seemed, at the moment, extraordinarily gentle. He scratched her neck, whispering softly to her.
“What’s been troubling you?” he asked. “What are you afraid of?”
Nash snorted gently, nudging his hand in hopes of more apples.
Why do I have this gift with animals Ashar wondered. Was it so that Omah would bring me here to help Lord Varador? But why would Omah send me to help such a man? For surely there is no one in the world as wicked as Varador.
Ashar was so deep in thought, he did not hear Lord Varador approach. But he snapped back into awareness when Nash suddenly reared up and neighed.
“It had been reported to me that you had tamed this animal,” Lord Varador said as he walked toward him. “It appears my council was mistaken.”
Ashar glanced at Benthem, who gave him a warning look as if to say, Don’t say anything to upset the lord. He reached out and tried to calm Nash, realizing that the mare was most decidedly responding to Lord Varador’s mere presence.
“Nothing will harm you,” Ashar whispered, focusing all his energies on trying to calm the frightened animal.
Nash quieted again, though Ashar could feel her trembling as the lord came closer. He glanced at Lord Varador, who was watching him carefully.
“Perhaps I spoke too soon,” the lord remarked.
“She is still upset.”
“This is the calmest I have seen her in weeks. So; it’s true. You do have power over animals.”
Ashar swallowed, daring another look at the tall, dark lord. He knew why Nash was afraid. He was afraid. Lord Varador was a man who invoked fear. His sorcery surrounded him like a visible aura, emanating from his very being.
“You want to say something,” Lord Varador probed, crossing his arms on his chest. “I can see it in your eyes.”
Ashar caught Benthem’s worried look as the man shook his head almost imperceptibly. He looked back at Lord Varador, considering. Should he tell Varador the truth?
“Go ahead, say what’s on your mind,” the lord commanded.
Ashar swallowed hard, looked away for a moment and then turned back to Lord Varador, gazing directly into his eyes.
“It’s you,” he said softly. “The animals are reacting to you.”
Benthem made a sudden movement, but Ashar kept his eyes locked with the lord’s.
A slight smile curled Lord Varador’s lips. Somehow, he was not surprised that this young man from Whitehall would be the one to finally state what everyone else already knew but had been afraid to say. “And why, Ashar of Whitehall, do you suppose that is?”
Ashar fell silent for a moment as if in thought. Lord Varador noticed then that, now that he was freshly bathed and more regally dressed, the young man was quite handsome. He had a pure face, his eyes a pale clear green, and his skin seemed to glow from hours spent in the sun. His blond hair, now washed and brushed to shining, hung straight and nearly white just past his shoulders. He would be a remarkably handsome man, Varador thought, and then, unbidden, another thought came into his mind:
He would be like a king.
“I don’t know,” Ashar said finally.
“Well, by all means, if you do come to some great revelation, please share it with me,” Varador said with affected sweetness.
The young man frowned but said nothing.
“Tell me, Ashar, what did you do in your village?”
“I watched my father’s sheep, Sir,” Ashar answered.
Lord Varador smiled again. A shepherd? Surely he had nothing to worry about, after all. What threat could a shepherd boy possibly pose? And perhaps that explained his gift with animals. The boy spent all his time with them.
Although Lord Varador knew perfectly well that not all shepherds—in fact, no other shepherds that he had ever heard of—had such power over animals, he chose to disregard this fact and comfort himself with this new knowledge. Surely he, lord of the vastest territory in all Merevonia, had nothing to fear from a shepherd boy.
“I’m going for a ride,” he announced. “See that she stays calm while I mount her.”
“I’ll try, Sir,” Ashar agreed, stroking the mare soothingly. Lord Varador seized the saddle and put one boot into a stirrup, and then leapt onto the back of the beast.
Although Nash was obviously uneasy, she allowed the lord to mount. Lord Varador rode out of the stall and out of the stable without trouble, but as soon as he stepped out into the courtyard, she reared up again, nearly unseating him.
“Ashar!” Benthem yelled.
Ashar rushed to the lord’s aid, and his presence immediately calmed the mare.
Lord Varador cursed and tried to ride again, but as soon as the mare was some distance away from Ashar, she became uncontrollable again.
“You haven’t tamed this horse,” Lord Varador accused. “What good will it do me if I can’t ride her when you’re not around? I’ll have to take you everywhere I go!”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” Ashar answered, feeling just as troubled about the situation as the lord.
Lord Varador gave a loud sigh. “Benthem,” he said, “saddle up a horse for the boy. I’ll have to take him with me whenever I ride until we can fix this situation.”
“Yes, my liege,” Benthem replied, rushing to ready one of the horses. “Ashar! Come with me.”
Ashar hurried after Benthem, nervous about riding with the lord but excited, too. He loved riding.
“You do know how to ride, don’t you?” Benthem asked, in a low, worried voice.
“Oh, yes. I ride nearly every day.”
Benthem nodded, obviously relieved. “Stay near Lord Varador. If he is thrown from his horse, I’ll hold you personally responsible.”
Ashar mounted his horse with ease—a black stallion with a white mane and tail—and rode out to join the lord, who was still having trouble controlling Nash.
As soon as Ashar approached, Nash calmed down again, and in the next instant Lord Varador took off at a trot, Ashar at his side.
It was night and the moon Kara had risen high in the sky, bright and full as the eye of Omah. They rode in the courtyard, an immense open area that was lit also by torches mounted around its perimeter. They circled the outer courtyard along a path there, for the inner courtyard contained a beautiful garden of weeping willow and pear trees. As they passed the men of the castle, they were hailed with cheers. It was the first time in several weeks that Lord Varador had been able to ride his horse, and the sight of him on the back of the unruly beast was a relief to everyone.
Lord Varador knew this; he knew that his authority had taken a hit when his animals had turned against him. It was important that everyone see he was still in control of his empire, beginning with his own horse. If it meant that he had to drag Ashar along everywhere he went, that’s what he would do.
They slowed their pace as they approached the stable. Varador turned to look at Ashar, who was grinning, his face flushed with excitement. For a brief moment the lord had a slight feeling of affection for the boy. He quickly put the thought from his mind; he could not afford to develop an attachment to someone he would eventually be forced to kill.
“Tomorrow you’ll ride with me to the north front,” he announced, dismounting and walking away without further comment.
Ashar looked after him, still breathing hard from the excitement of the ride. So, it really was true, just as Benthem had said. He was going to the north front, where Varador’s legendary warriors were preparing to extend the lord’s empire northward into Lord Drake’s territory. Of any place he might be asked to go, none was more exciting or frightening than the north front.
And he would be riding there with none other than Lord Varador, the most powerful ruler of Merevonia.
Ashar shivered. In just a few short days, his entire life had been completely transformed. He had gone from tending sheep in his family’s pastures to taming the mount of the most renown sorcerer the world had ever known.
What would tomorrow bring?
Ashar instinctively reached for his prayer scrolls, closing his eyes to offer a prayer of supplication to Omah.
Help me, Omah, he prayed. I am afraid. Give me the strength to face whatever is in store for me. Help me to trust in your purpose for my life.
He opened his eyes, feeling a sense of peace wash over him. He smiled, knowing that he had just been blessed.
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Kira Morningstar: Ashar