Skyblade could make out the distant mountains waver if she squinted her eyes just right. The heat was coming off the plains in waves as she savored every precious breeze that came by. Sky was concentrating on keeping her hands very still as she sat leaning against a boulder waiting for the pair of shiny blue dragonflies to light on her. When it was this still and hot, Sky-blade had to focus on anything she could find to keep the heat from making her drowsy. Every member of the clan except the elders helped the scouts and took their turn once a moon guarding their homeland, thus keeping muscles and fighting skills honed and ready.
The dragonflies were almost ready to land when Sky noticed a shadow pass overhead. She put her hand up to block out the sun and she saw a scavenger bird circling very near. It was too hot in the day for this bird to be out hunting unless it had sensed that food was available. She scanned the landscape around her with trained eyes, looking for anything that was not supposed to be there. Besides the scavenger there was nothing. Still she decided to get DarkNite, her warsteed, out from under the rocky alcove where she had left him to doze and stay cool.
Quietly and with the ease of a strong and supple body, she stood up and walked back down to the rocks where DarkNite was waiting for her. From the time he was a yearling he had been trained to battle and to defend his rider to the death. Now he was a warrior and Skyblade's partner.
He had sensed her approach and was alert, standing his full height as she reached to entrance to the small cave-like formation. Sky removed the leather guard on her short sword and pulled her saddle bow from under her pack roll. She might need them in a hurry and years of practice had taught her to be ready for a fight. As SwordMaster of her clan, she enjoyed the opportunity to practice her scouting skills while on guard duty. All of the clan members studied weapons and horsemanship from the various masters and trainers. Skyblade still practiced with the Master Archer, Kisha, as often as she could.
Kisha's last turn at watch duty had provided a story to be told to the children at night and, of course, it had grown to almost legend status by the second by the second and third telling. It began as he stepped backward into a nest of desert hook-nosed snakes. Momma snake was not too pleased. He'd had to stand frozen for several hours until he missed his return time and his replacement went to look for him. Luckily, his replacement was able to ride close enough to Kisha to scare off the snake long enough for Kisha to get clear of the nest. It made for great story-telling.
Nothing much had ever happened on Skyblade's watch except for storms, yet she sensed something was not right today. The desert was too still and the scavenger bird shouldn't be there.
She patted DarkNite to reassure him and mounted. He seemed to know just where she wanted him to go as she guided him with her legs and weight toward the rocky ridge where the plains turned into the edge of a mountain range called The Spotted Mountains because of the patches of dwarf trees that grew there. Her alertness was dagger-sharp as she listened and watched. It was very still and quiet.
She should have heard more sounds, such as those made by tree crickets and locusts. Sky decided to venture a short way into the hills just to check. She carried a full array of weapons from her short sword across her back, long sword behind her saddle-pack and saddle-bow to the two throwing knives across her chest. Her best weapon, of course was herself and her training. DarkNite was a formidable warrior in his own right. Skyblade's clan bred and trained the finest horses in the realm.
Slowly she and DarkNite moved as quietly as possible around the edge of the rocky hills and trees. Suddenly Skyblade saw movement and a color not of rocks or trees. She signaled DarkNite to a halt and strained to see the movement again. In the distance were men on horseback, dressed in bright green and blue armed with long spears. She did not recognize their weapons or their clothing; they could not have come from this area because no plains clan would wear colors like that. They were too easily seen, even here where there were groups of thick trees and brush. Out on the yellow plains, they would not be able to hide themselves at all.
Sky dropped from DarkNite and gave him the command to kneel down. She could not tell what the men were doing, but they had stopped and the leader was showing a map to several others. Sky did not move, even as a small tan snake slithered over her right forearm. She needed to know what these men were doing and what direction they were going to take. For some reason she did not think they were just passing through. The men talked for a while, then turned their horses North, away from Skyblade's home.
Sky mounted and returned to her camp as her watch was not over. After she had groomed and fed DarkNite, she reported to the clan WarLeader.
WarLeader K'Lehia was a match for any warrior or professional mercenary. K'Lehia looked like a warrior. She was tall and muscular with penetrating gray eyes. Her long ebony hair was bound in a single braid down her back. She wore a black tunic with black britches, black boots and, black leather forearm guards with red hawks dyed into them. A chain mail vest covered her upper body. she was a very striking figure. She had earned her position by trial, just as Skyblade had. Sky admired and respected K'Lehia, as did every member of the clan. When the two practiced sword-play, it was an event that brought out all of the clan members to watch and learn.
Skyblade finished her report and waited for K'Lehia to speak or dismiss her. She did not know these men, but her WarLeader did. K'Lehia called a council meeting of the Elders and the Masters. Within a candlemark everyone was present in K'Lehia's tent. She raised her hand all were silent.
"Some of you know this story. Some are too young to have heard it," she began. "About twenty-five seasons ago a badly wounded stranger was found on the plains. Our scouts brought him here to our healers. The healers tried to help him, but his wounds were too serious and he knew he was dying. Around his neck was a small leather pouch. He begged one of the healers to take it in return for tending him. He told the healer that it was very valuable, more so than gold, and that it had magical powers that would protect the pure of heart. The healer opened the pouch and removed a beautiful stone no bigger than a desert wren"s egg.
"It was translucent green mixed with blue and could be seen through from all angles. It looked like water and within the center a fish was carved as if it were just breaking the surface. The healer asked the man what it was as he had never seen anything like it. The man struggled to speak as the last of his like was fading away. "It is called the Dolphin Stone and I have given my life to keep it from falling into the hands of those who would use it for evil. It is a magical stone forged by a goddess a long time ago."
"The man grabbed the healer and closed his hand over the stone. "The stone can only be used once by each person. I used my turn on the journey from my land." The man gasped for air as he tried in vain to go on. The light in his eyes left and he leaned over lifeless."
K'Lehia continued her story, "For a few winters we feared that others would seek the stone the man had died for, so we hid it. We also agreed not to talk about it in case any out-clan heard the story and repeated it. Today SwordMaster Skyblade reported seeing men dressed in blue and green, the same colors the stranger wore. We have heard from the trading wagon caravans that a people far to the South who live near a great lake they call the 'ocean' are reported to wear such colors. Perhaps these men have come looking for this Dolphin Stone at last."
K'Lehia and the Elders spent the next several candlemarks discussing the best plan of action. It was agreed that in the morning K'Lehia and two regular scouts would ride to where they had buried the stranger and the stone. Skyblade asked to accompany them.
Skyblade listened to the sounds of the night as she waited impatiently for dawn. The winds of the plains seemed to sing at night, as if telling a story of their own. The strange stone had intrigued her and she cold not help but wonder what magic this stone might posses.
Morning finally broke through and Skyblade became aware of the sound of birds and the smell of breakfast cooking. She jumped up, excited by the lure of coming adventure. She quickly dressed in her britches and leather vest, leaving her arms bare except for the leather forearm guards she always wore for weapons practice. An image of her beloved DarkNite and the symbols of the SwordMaster adorned these leather guards. She packed both of her swords for this trip as she preferred her short sword for fighting as it allowed her to fight in close and quickly using her speed skill and strength to their fullest, but her long sword was preferable for more than one opponent. Her saddle bow was already with her tack.
She found DarkNite waiting for her at the edge of camp in the open pasture where the clanÕs herd stayed. Like DarkNite, the other horses were trained to stay near the camp and did not need fences to confine them. Quickly she placed his saddle and bit-less bridle on him and checked her hear. Her short sword was slung across her back and her two quick release daggers were across her chest.
The others were waiting as Skyblade joined them at the trail-head where K'Lehia had instructed them to meet. Breakfast was cold biscuits and meat cakes. K'Lehia took point, Skyblade next, followed by the two other scouts. They headed North, away from the plains, to the edge of the Crooked Tree Mountains.
They rode in silence for several candlemarks until K'Lehia called a halt by raising her hand. There was a small valley off to their left where the rocks had formed a deep jagged gorge. They all dismounted at K'Lehia's instruction and left their horses ground-tied as they walked carefully down through loose rocks to the back of the gorge. Stopping under a sharp overhand, the WarLeader pulled away several large rocks as she looked for something.
Within a short time she found she found what she sought, a sword had been buried to its hilt marking a grave. She cleared debris and rocks encrusted around the old sword until a leather pouch appeared as it had been hung many seasons before. K'Lehia cut the stiff leather thong that bound the pouch to the sword and opened it to display the treasure.
The stone was as beautiful as Skyblade had imagined. It was very small and sunlight danced through the green crystal that held the image of a fish (a dolphin, they were told) carved in the center. It was as if that small fish was alive and the water around it moved with a magic of its own.
"The stranger that came among us that day long ago gave up the most precious thing he had to keep this stone from falling into evil hands," said K'Lehia. "Its value must be beyond that which we can understand." K'Lehia secured the pouch to her sword belt and mounted her warsteed. The rest followed her lead.
They had not ridden very far along the mountain trail when K'Lehia stopped abruptly. Skyblade pulled up as did the scouts behind her. No one moved or made a sound. Once again, the lack of sound signified something wrong. As if in slow motion, K'Lehia drew her long sword with one fluid move as Skyblade drew her short sword in a reflex born of unending practice.
A dozen riders dressed in the colors of the stone rushed in from all sides, startling the horses as they rode through the group of four warriors. They carried the long spears Sky had seen before as they tried to unseat and impale the defenders of the stone. Horses and men were screaming as DarkNite reared up to his full height to strike out at the two riders approaching Sky's off-sword side. He caught the spear-head with one of his hooves, breaking it in half. Sky slashed down and out to slice off the arm of the second attacker. K'Lehia and the scouts were fighting just as gallantly. One of the scouts had gone down under his horse which had taken a spear through the heart. Sky wheeled DarkNite around to fend off the attackers, but could not get to him quickly enough. One of the riders trampled him as he rode his horse over the scout's body. Anger pulsed through Skyblade driving her to fight with renewed strength and purpose.
K'Lehia had killed two of the riders near her and was dealing with three more. How manPy were there? Skyblade ducked and sliced open the gut of the next attacker spraying blood across DarkNite's head and neck. She glanced around to find the other scout, but saw his horse running riderless back toward their camp. Now only she and K'Lehia stood against many. In fact, more attackers were riding over the bodies of their dead comrades in their haste to get to Skyblade and K'Lehia. Skyblade's skill with the sword was obvious, even to her opponents, as the score of dead began to mount up around her, but the sheer number of these men was taking it's toll on the strength of both warriors and they know that eventually they would tire and the battle would be won by the men now pursuing them.
They know they had to split up and try for the look-out posts the clan had scattered around the perimeter of their boundaries. Skyblade hated to retreat, but her masters had taught her long ago as a child to use her head as well as her strength, so that despite pride, victory would prevail in the end. Both knew what they had to do. There was no need for words as their eyes met.
K'Lehia bolted her golden mare past Skyblade and as she passed she tossed the leather pouch containing the stone in SkybladeÕs lap. As she raced South, half of the attackers followed. Skyblade stuffed the pouch down her boot and turned DarkNite East, taking with her the other half of the riders. More riders started coming from being boulders. It appeared she had ridden into the main party of the strangers.
With great speed and courage DarkNite raced toward the red-painted canyon and the deep river that cut through it. Skyblade sheathed her sword and reached behind her for her saddle bow. As she rounded a large group of boulders, something hit her across the side of her head. It sounded as if a young stripling tree had been bent until it popped. Pain raced through her skull like a lightening bold and, mercifully, knocked her unconscious before she hit the ground. Now riderless, DarkNite raced toward the clanÕs boundaries as his years of training had taught him. Nothing but death would stop him.
Skyblade started to regain consciousness little by little. Her head and right eye were on fire and she felt nauseous and disoriented. She wanted to sink back into darkness, but remembered she had been captured and was alone with her captors. Before she could think clearly, someone brutally kicked her side as she fought to open her eyes and speak. The right side of her face was swollen, her right was closed, and her right leg was badly broken. She was grabbed by her vest and dragged over sharp rocks, cutting and bruising her even more. Her sword was not in its sheath. She was barely aware of anything except that she was unarmed and hurt.
She recognized the roar and felt the spray of the river as she struggled to free herself with what little strength she still had. One of the men bent over her cursing asking "Where is the stone?" She did not respond fast enough for his liking, so he kicked her again in the ribs. Skyblade tried to strike back as she coughed up blood and tried to see the face of her attacker. She hurt so badly that she could not focus or get up from where she lay. Once again, someone cursed and yelled at her to tell them where 'it' was. Unable to answer, she felt herself being dragged again and this time she was taken into the icy river and held face-down.
She tried to fight, but had little strength now. Oddly, the cold water numbed the pain of her wounds and she tried to turn over and fight for air. Someone pulled her head up by her hair and demanded for a third time to know where the stone was. She gathered her final effort and spit blood at him as he plunged her head under again. Everything went dark and quiet as she lost consciousness again.
Meanwhile, K'Lehia had managed to outrun the group that had followed her, getting to an outpost and sending for reinforcements. Within two candlemarks K'Lehia and a force of several dozen warriors from their clan were on their way to rescue their SwordMaster. DarkNite had come in riderless which spurred the clan warriors on. They raced full tilt to the place where Sky and K'Lehia had split up. The arrived at the spot where the piles of dead riders lay staining the ground with their blood, their horses wandering aimlessly. They retrieved the body of one scout and sent several warriors to search for the second. K'Lehia and the rest followed Skyblade's trail.
As they rounded a pass and heard the roar of the river, they saw Skyblade lying on the bank. One of the clan riders was a healer and she raced ahead to the still figure. She turned Skyblade over to find her alive and clenching something tightly in her right hand. The Dolphin Stone illuminated her entire body as Skyblade began to breath slowly, coughing up water. Her face was a bloody mess, but as they watched the stone's power began to heal the ugly wounds before their eyes. Within seconds the open cuts and broken bones were mended. Skyblade's eyes opened as she began to regain her strength. Just as the wounds disappeared, so the illumination died out. There was a loud sound of thrashing fish coming from the river; that too eased as the stone dimmed to normal. The healer put her hand to Skyblade's face. AS she did, Skyblade looked up at them all.
"I know now why the stranger said this stone was more precious than gold. I was drowning. My attackers left me for dead when I no longer responded to their abuse. I could feel myself being drawn into the darkness of death. In the very instant before life left my body, I felt the stone in my book take over. Fish from the river gathered around me in a frenzy, forming a cradle that lifted my up from under the water. Their action charged me with new energy and strength. As I surfaced, I was able to catch my breath and fill my lungs with life again. They pushed me toward the bank and I was able to pull myself out of the river."
Skyblade looked down at her clenched fist and opened her hand to reveal the wondrous stone. It sparkled in the sun as if blessed by the goddess. In fact it had been. The group returned to their camp taking the magical stone with them. Skyblade had added a story of her hown to tell around the evening campfires.
K'Lehia and the other council members would consider this wonderful gift and how best to protect and use its still unknown powers. Skyblade knew there was much more it would reveal to them, but for now she and DarkNite were content just to be home.
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