The canyon walls surround the group and soon the camp disappears behind them. Tal rides ahead, leading with a determined pace. She glances pack only once to ensure the others are following. They head deeper and deeper into the canyon until a path leading up appears. Tal urges her horse onto the wide path and soon the group emerges on top of the plateau.
The Redlands stretch beyond the horizon in all directions, the morning sun casting long shadows across the land. In the distance a small dust storm can be seen travelling across the endless, harsh terrain. Large birds circle overhead, their far seeing eyes searching for food.
Tal dismounts and motions for the others to do the same. “Let’s talk, away from my father, away from everyone.”
Ari is the first off her horse, Followed by Kemp and then a reluctant Crofton who stays far from the group. Ari eyes the horses. “What about them?”
Waving her hand at Ari, Tal smiles. “Let them wander. They’ll stay close.” She sits on the ground and stares at the three curiously. “All right. I want the whole story. Not the one you told my father or the one you’re going to tell me is the truth. There can be no secrets between us if you want my full help.”
The three look at each other, Ari’s eyes sharply snapping away from Crofton. After a moment of silent deliberation, Ari and Kemp sit across from Tal. Crofton stays where he is, crossing his arms and letting his eyes wander across the landscape.
“Do we have your word you won’t speak of this to anyone?” Ari asks.
“Only if you explain why it needs to be kept a secret.”
Hesitating, Ari chooses her next words carefully. “Do your people know the names Ime Gurek and Meah Flandine?”
Locking her eyes on Ari, Tal crosses her arms over her chest. “The Life Healer who instilled hope into the hearts of a world that forgot how and the legendary Fire Mage who defeated the Blood King, the self-proclaimed ruler of Myldea. We may prefer isolation, but our people didn’t sit idly by when a call for arms was raised. Many of our people fought in that war. Many died, but some were brought back by the Life Healer’s magic.” Tal’s eyes scan Ari’s face and she leans forward. “Are you going to tell me they’re your parents?”
Ari nods, her hands shaking as she prepares to speak. “The attack on Kellahn wasn’t committed by someone claiming to be the reincarnation of the Blood King.”
Tal snorts. “I figured that.”
“The attack was committed by magic users. They were sent to kill as many magic users as they could, but their true targets were me and my mother.” Ari plays with the silk bracelet on her wrist. “My mother, Meah, was killed during the attack and they would’ve killed me too if Kemp and Crofton hadn’t been with me when they tried.”
“And what of Ime? Was he killed as well?” Tal asks.
“No. My father is in Deirak. He left Kellahn after I was born to search for the Source of Magic.”
“Magic is fading from the world. Your people must’ve noticed it,” Kemp says, resting a hand on Ari’s leg in comfort. “Ari’s father believes if he can locate the Source of Magic he may be able to determine why and stop it.”
A small sound from behind sends a shot of rage through Ari, but she ignores Crofton’s interruption and keeps her eyes on Tal. Kemp glances back at Crofton, sensing the strange air between the two.
“The Source of magic? Is that even something that can be found?” Tal asks, ignoring the interruption.
“There’s the possibility that whatever is causing the fading of magic may not be the Source, but something interfering with it,” Ari says. “Something that my father may be getting close to locating.”
“So it sent men to attack Kellahn, kill you and your mother as a warning to stop Ime.”
Ari swallows a lump in her throat and takes a calming breath that only makes her nerves and anger grow. “And because I may have the power to destroy it.”
“And the men following you three are these same men.”
Tal’s eyes move from each of their faces with a stern expression on her face. After several seconds of thought, she stands and places her hands on her hips. “All right. Now that I know what I’m actually fighting for, you have my full strength.”
“Are you saying you wouldn’t have tried very hard to help us if our story didn’t satisfy you?” Crofton asks, angrily.
“Yes.” She met Crofton’s eyes. “My father is sending not only me, but some of our most loyal men. If your little adventure wasn’t worth risking my life for, it’s sure as hell not worth any of our people. Loyalty must go both ways in order for it to work.”
“Will they fight not knowing the truth?” Kemp asks.
Smiling, Tal holds her hand out to Ari. “If I trust you, they’ll trust you, too.”
Ari takes the hand, Tal pulling her to her feet. Kemp stands and all three turn to Crofton. He eyes Ari, warily, but she nods her head. He reluctantly walks forward to join them.
“Good. There are still a lot of preparations to make for both the wedding tonight and our journey to Deirak,” Tal says. “But since we have a bit of time, how about a race?”
“A race?” Ari asks.
“Of course. I want to see how you handle horses. Up for it?”
An excited smile forms on Ari’s lips and she almost bounces with excitement. “Absolutely.”
The four mount their horses and line up. Tal straightens her legs so she can look at the three next to her. “We’ll race down the cliffs, through the canyon away from camp then circle back. The finish line will be the small stream that runs by the first tent. Everyone got that?” Before they can agree, Tal says, “Go!”
Ari and Tal take off before Kemp and Crofton realize what’s happened. Crofton’s expression darkens as he watches Ari disappear down the path leading off the cliff.
“Well, we’ve got no chance to catch up to them. So how about a little race between the two of us?” Kemp asks. Without a word, Crofton nods his head and they chase after the two girls.
The group tears through the canyon dodging large boulders and bushes. The thrill of the race excites the four, wiping the stress from their thoughts. Ari and Tal reach the end of the canyon and rein their horses around a large tower of stone. They run past Kemp and Crofton, yelling excitedly as they pass. Crofton groans and turns his horse around to follow after, raising a cloud of red dust. Kemp quickly does the same and the two men race after the women.
Tal and Ari run neck and neck as they approach the stream marking the end of the race. Their horses run through the water, sending large splashes around them. Slowing, they eventually come to a stop, laughing and cheering.
Crofton and Kemp catch up and all four dismount. Indra approaches, a bright smile on his lips as he walks up to Tal. She mimics his smile and places a hand on his cheek. He takes the reins of her horse and leans down suddenly, kissing her. She playfully shoves him away, but both share a smile of unbridled joy.
Indra leads the horses back to the stables, leaving the four by the stream. Tal drinks from the clear water and motions for the others to do the same.
“So you and Indra,” Ari starts.
“What?” Tal asks, eyeing Ari curiously.
“It’s just…I thought you two were…”
“Siblings? No. Indra and I grew up together. We’ve always been at each other’s sides and after tonight we shall be forever bound together.”
“Three weddings tonight,” Kemp says, realization dawning in his voice.
Nodding, Tal takes another drink of cool water. “One of them is mine.”