[Completed] Fire's Promise [Ashes of the Ylan #1] [A Rama Empire novel]

"I thought you'd kill me," she croaked. "Not much honour if you cannot keep your promises."

Within the world of Convergera, lies the lands of Rama. Though the Rama Empire has long since been disbanded, the Capital still stands as a symbol of prosperity. The Antirian wars are over, but peace is soon disturbed as disaster strikes.

Sarashi is raised on the Wild Plains, but in a culture where freedom is everything, she is tied down by fear and expectations. Her people wants her to embrace her mother's legacy, her own fury screams for vengeance and her heart aches to belong. But when the war between the Sapphire Empire and the people of Rama flares up again, she'll have to make a choice between what she wants, and what is expected of her.

"Both standing on two legs, eyes level, the lion tried to push her into the ground. Her heart beat like never before as it stretched its neck over the spear to reach her face with its teeth. Pain made her dizzy as she growled back, a fiery rage star

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31. Ch 4: Mountains Tall (Part 8 of 8)

The snow melted quickly, as warmth returned to the mountains like the sweet breath of a lover against one's neck. Bird flew through the skies, and animals who had been in hibernation returned. The sun shone with a vengeful scorch.

Sarashi showed up by Kheerl's hut to listen to yet another one of the old man's stories, but was instead chased out with a jeering chuckle and a comment about enjoying the sun. Instead Sarashi went to take out Timpre, who had gotten little exercise over the winter.

The enclosure where he stood was small, but laid up against a cliff side with a large cave. They kept the cave free of animals during the summer, and filled it with straw and grass brought up from the plains to feed the horses through the winter. The opening itself provided shelter for the goats and horses, when storms or snow came down heavily between the mountain sides. Inside the cave were additional rooms for storage, some with doorways that looked almost man made. Perhaps they were: Kheerl had told her that if she looked closely, she might find strange symbols on the walls and scorch marks on the floors.

Timpre almost danced with excess energy and excitement when she went to him. She felt a pang of shame. After the encounter with the bandits, and Janko being wounded, she had not gotten to take him out much during the snows. The fact that the ice made it dangerous for horses to follow the small trails only made her feel slightly better. The horse needed to be in good shape, as it was almost time for her to get back to her travels. No matter how close she had gotten with the tribe of Silver-Bearded Lynx, it felt like she was taking advantage of their hospitality. Mardik would hear no mention of thanks from her. She rubbed Timpre's forehead in greeting, taking comfort in his warmth.

She worried her friends would not go with her.

The fear was a constant strain, and it had grown stronger over the winter, like water building behind a damn, waiting for it to break. She was too terrified to ask, especially since she knew not every tribe on the plains would welcome her.

Mya had fallen completely in love with learning. She swallowed the books in Kheerl's collection at a speed Sarashi could never hope to attain, and they seemed to strengthen her resolve. She no longer shied away from other people, and had many close friends among the mountain tribe. Sarashi hoped Mya might go with her when the time came.

She did not dare hope Janko would. He and Erar shared a hut these days, and Sarashi knew from the way they spoke and touched each other, that it would be impossible for Janko to leave the red headed scout. No, Janko would stay in the mountains, and Sarashi would miss him.

She let a soft hand slide over the coat of her horse.

She left Timpre for a short moment, found his bridle among the tack in the cave-entrance, and returned to his side to put it on him. He snorted as she did so, and dipped his head low with impatience. Despite the hum of energy beneath his skin, he stood still and did not attempt to run off when she checked his hooves for pebbles.

With the grace of long times practice, Sarashi mounted and spurred him towards the fence. Clutching her thighs firmly around his warm body, she leaned forward when she felt his muscles contract, and in the next second they were flying above the fence. When they reconnected with the earth, she felt the impact reverberate through her, and she gasped. She did not bother warming him up. He had been trotting around the enclosure all morning, and his whole body was quivering with the need to run. How could she deny him when she herself felt the same?

On strong agile legs, he leapt through the mountains, every motion of accelerating his speed further. They only slowed to a more careful trot in places where the footing was bad, but ever other place they kept to speed.

Sarashi let free a feral grin as they thundered through a canyon, her hair flying behind her. She knew she should slow down, but the exhilaration of the flight merged with the rush of danger and had her blood pumping. When they reached the edge of a cliff, Timpre had to turn on his hind legs to prevent them from sliding right out over it. They stopped then, leaving them both heaving for air, and their hearts beating wildly.

Staring out into the open air, she remembered the story Mardik had told her of the first tribe to settle in the mountains.

A Mahayan Lady of Rama by the name of Saebet had been kidnapped by mountain bandits, and her tribe had gone to save her. When they arrived they found that Saebet had awakened magecraft and slain the bandits herself. Enchanted by the mountain air and finding that the cool winds blowing through the pass soothed the restlessness of their souls, they had decided to stay. In the two hundred years after, other tribes, including the Silver-Bearded Lynx, had joined Saebet's in the White Breath Mountains. Since, Saerbet's line had died out.

Atop Timpre, at the edge of the world, she could see the other mountains in the ridge. She could see clouds beneath her, and each breath was almost painful since the air was so cold. It was so quiet, it felt like the world would splinter at any sudden noise.

Sarashi let out a loud howl. It spooked the horse beneath her, and sent him galloping again, turning back down the trail, towards the canyon. Sarashi laughed, barely hanging on to his back.

She slowed him to a walk on the way back, to allow him to cool down properly, though she would still have to rub the sweat off of him, to prevent him catching a chill.

Timre's ears flickered forward, as he heard something, and his nostrils flared when he caught a scent. Sarashi did not notice, too enraptured by the spring air.

Suddenly he reared. In a matter of heartbeats, he flew into a gallop again, jostling her violently off his back.

A frightened yelp left her, followed by a whimper of pain as she hit the gravel ground. All air was pushed from her lungs, and left her gasping like a fish on land. Terrified that mountain bandits or wolves might be the reason her horse had taken off, she forced herself to sit up, looking around wildly.

But no wolves, nor bandits were in sight.

With a muttered curse, she got to her feet, and only realised then that her horse had completely gone from sight, and she had forgotten to bring her weapon.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thought to herself. Her back felt bruised, both her palms were bleeding and her ankle felt twisted. But nothing was broken, and she had avoided hitting her head on the stones. All things considered the fall could have been worse.

Picking stones from the wounds on her hands, she began walking towards the village, guessing she would find him there. She winced every time she stepped down on her right foot, and after a bit, she gave up and sat down. If she was lucky, the pain would lessen in a little while, after her leg had rested.

She was in a sour mood, and exhaustion flooded her out of nowhere. If the tribe found out her horse had run off on her, and the story spread like so many of the others-

What will people say? Will they think less of me for getting thrown and forgetting to bring my weapon? “The Princess rode into the mountains, lost her horse, and had to wait for someone to come get her because her foot was hurt. But not badly hurt, just enough that she might prefer not to walk.”?

I'll be cursed if I let them speak about me like that, she thought and forced herself to stand again. She would walk back herself, and maybe no one had seen.

The sound of hooves had her alert and focused in an instant. It might be Timpre returning, or someone from the tribes, but the last bandit attack had her picking up a rock, so she had some means of defending herself, however poor. Hearth in her throat, she waited to see who it might be.

She relaxed when she saw Mardik's brown mare coming round the corner, and let the stone fall back to the ground. Then she stiffened, suddenly realising that this meant a witness to her foolishness.

“Heyla,” the Mahal called, a gleam in his eyes and the shadow of a worried furrow on his brow. It disappeared as he looked her over for damage and found little to that effect. “Need a ride back?”

She lowered her gaze to the ground and her offending foot.

“I'm fine,” she said, meeting his eyes again. “Timpre took off suddenly, and I had a bit of tumble.” She turned up her nose, knowing he must have already guessed as much.

Laughter showed in his eyes, though his face remained neutral. She had noticed that about him before. He never had much of a facial expression, but you could always count on his eyes to show what the rest did not.

“Ah, yes,” he said drily. “We were moving the mares to one of the grassy valleys,” he continued as if it explained something.

She scrounged up her nose in confusion.

“Some of the Ramera mares are going into heath early this year,” he elaborated. “I gather it was too much of a temptation for your stallion, young as he is. He showed up with is bridle on and no rider, so I thought I'd better check where he'd come from.”

Sarashi's cheeks grew hot.

“And being older makes temptation less?” she asked him tartly, her already dour mood spiralling downwards.

Mardik watched her for a few moments, before giving her half a smile and a shake of his head.

“Of course not. But it does gain you a bit of self restraint,” he pointed out. “Both concerning spring instincts and bad tempers.”

Sarashi closed her hands into fists at his mild reproach. He was treating her like a disgruntled child! She raised her hadn again, sticking her chin out.

“Thank you for coming to check on me, but I'll be fine walking back alone,” she lied.

He raised a brow, his eyes sparkling with amusement.

“But is there any wisdom in doing so, when I'm already offering you a ride?” he asked her.

She glared.

Could be I don't like your company,” she said harshly. Usually she enjoyed conversing with him, but she felt rotten. All the earlier freedom had grown tainted, and she was taking it out on him.

Maybe he is right to treat me like a disgruntled child.

“I won't speak then,” he said, spurring his horse closer and reaching a hand down to pull her up behind him.

She hesitated. She did not want to go back like this, in disgrace, but walking back alone would make her seem like a fool. She let him help her up on the horse and once there, she hesitated again. In the end she decided to put her hand on his shoulder to keep from falling.

“I don't bite,” he said, his voice kind. The same voice you would use among easily startled animals.

Anger gilled her, and she removed her hand from his shoulder and put it on his waist instead.

The rode in silence for a while, but then her worries got the best of her. Perhaps Mardik was right about age giving better self control, because right then she felt so devastatingly young.

“How many saw Timpre return whithout me?” she asked as quietly as Mya, her face for once turned downward as she let her hair fall forward to hide it. From what she did not know, they were alone and he had his back turned to her.

“Just old Vuldre and I,” Mardik told her. “The rest were too far away. And Vuldre loathes everyone so he won't talk.”

Sarashi felt herself relax against her will, and leaned her forehead against his back.

“I sometimes feel we force our young to grow up too fast,” he said softly. “Perhaps it is because we settle down for the winter as we do, instead of the constant travelling on the plains. Perhaps it is simple because life seems so long between the rocks and the valleys of the mountains.”

Sarashi's eyes suddenly had the familiar sting of tears. She bit her lip to keep them back. Her emotions were going in ever other direction, like the needles of a scared hedgehog.

“The children in Enshal weren't considered adults till they were seventeen,” she whispered. “I would have gone through a ceremony proclaiming me an adult and official heir to throne. I wouldn't have had to fight a lion. My parents would have been there.” When the words first started flowing, it was impossible for her to stop them and she told him things she had never admitted to anyone. She hated herself for her weakness. Hated herself for telling these things to a man she barely knew. “Now the children in Enshal hang in the trees,” she said hoarsely. “I knew that. I heard the rumours and I thought I understood- but when we left the Wild Horses after my rite of passage and we found those-” Her voice broke, and tears began rolling down her cheeks.

Mardik stopped his horse and unmounted it, drawing her down with him and pulling her into his arms as she cried. He murmured comforting sounds without meaning, as she tried to purge the words from her heart, so she would not shatter.

“Everyone is so angry,” she told him, her entire being distraught. “They want me to fix it, and when I can't do what they want, they reject me. I don't have all the answers. And Mya, and Janko, I don't understand why they stay. Why would they want to go with me, when I- I can't do anything right! They all think I have to act a certain way, do things the way they expect me to, and I try- I try- but... I can't.”

Mardik picked her up in his arms, and carried her to a fallen pine where he sat down. She ended up in his lap, face pressed against his chest and tears staining the fabric of his tunic.

“I should have never promised to hunt the Empire,” she confessed, despair colouring her tone. “I can't do it! Sometimes... Sometimes I think I should never have survived the castle. That I should have let the lion get me. They- somebody spat at me, because I won't take my mother's title- but I can't. I'm not worthy. I will never be worthy.”

Mardik hummed low in his chest, and gently caressed her hair.

“Now see,” he said, taking a deep breath. Instinctively Sarashi followed his example, and let out the breath that had been choking her. “I cannot say whether you should or should not have promised to fight the Empire. I can also not claim to have all the answers about whether you should, or should not claim the title of Lady. But I think you know, deep down, that the tribes are doing you great injustice, little Queen. They are scared and angry, but the fear makes them take it out on you instead of the soldiers. As for your friends... They stay with you because they care, so trust in them, that you are not alone,” he advised her, speaking slowly and calmly. “As for being worthy, I will tell you this: If you truly wanted the lion to take you, you would not have fought back. And few can fight a lion off, so take pride in what you did. Fewer still are ready to lead by the age of fifteen- Give yourself time.”

Sarashi bit the inside of her cheek, trying to stem her tears. Not that it helped any, as they kept raining down, and though she found relief in his words, they also filled her with violent disbelief. It was not logical, but it was how she felt.

“I don't have time,” she argued. “They all want me to do something, and do it now!”

Mardik gave her that half smile of his freely, compassion in his eyes.

“Then have them give you time,” he said. “Turn their anger back on the Empire, if you can, and perhaps explain why you will not take your mother's title.”

“I can't,” she protested, feeling like she was choking. “They can't know that I'm not worthy, they'd loathe me.”

“They are already angry,” Mardik pointed out sensibly. “And you may not feel you are worthy, but that was not what I meant to tell them. Tell them you want to prove it, and then make yourself believe it as well.”

With a feeling he would never understand the impossibility of that suggestion, she changed the subject.

“Janko won't stay with me. He'll stay here.” She purged herself of the things that crushed her, finally allowing herself to feel them. Feeling ashamed for wanting somebody to listen. To care.

Mardik smiled fully, a rare expression on him.

“He came to me the other day, asking where he could get the worn leather for Silver Song's bridle replaced,” he told her. “He's already preparing to go with you.”

He dried her tears with his sleeve, helped her to her feet again and went to bring his mare over. His calm accept of her stormy emotions helped, and she took a deep breath.

“Ready to go back to the huts?”

She nodded, tired, with a throat sore from crying, and bruises forming from the fall. But she felt somewhat lighter, now she had talked with someone about her innermost fears, even if she could not believe his answers.

So when Mardik swung himself on to his horse, and held down his hand to help her up, she took it willingly.

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