The sun was brutal this season, rising as it was from the house of Juth, an occurrence that transpired every one-hundred-and-sixty-two circuits of Nengath’s Chariot. It always foretold struggle, and this time it was no different as the rains had not come to refresh the oases; but that was not all.
Aras k’an Thril surveyed lands that were not his as his leathered-skin shell beat back the burning rays. The Juroikar had come, as they always did when the people and the land were afflicted by deprivation, somehow sensing weakness as though it were a scent, or a beacon for their atrocities. Yet, he was not unprepared; he had studied the histories and consulted the star-seers, unlike those before him. The Devotes of Ytisa had been ridiculed in the past by the Ghari tribes as charlatans, practitioners of false omens, and sometimes slain during the dark times when the ways had become forgotten. But Aras had embraced them, needing the wisdom of their visions.
Many Ghari had been put to the sword in his conquest of unification, but those that remained were his and would follow his direction. They were the elite; the strength in his arm and without them all else would be surely doomed. He had won them and he would wield them like a great spear, stabbing at the heart of his enemy. Once he had become Uthara of the Ghari, neighboring peoples such as the Bolokur, Ostyeni, and Pe’elan had come readily to his banner; a united Ghari was not a foe any of them were prepared to face.
Aras turned to his Shatrah, sitting astride her beast like a queen upon her throne, “Escah, tell me, am I fortuned this day?”
She stared vacantly out over the expanse, seeing the camp situated in the dead-space of the Illari wash. “Aye, my Uthara, but only slightly. Field your forces wisely or else victory will slip through your grasp. The field is even, but your vision is greater. The commander you face is but a stripling, yet his forces are quick and determined… and there is something else I cannot determine. Indirectness is your ally.”
“Your vision matches my thoughts, Escah. Fortune will indeed be with us this day. Your advice is a blessing on my heart.”
The Shatrah of Aras looked at him then, her fiery hair bound by many bands, but her piercing, almond eyes unrestrainable; unafraid of the judgment of her Uthara. “When we are one, then Ytisa guarantees the rightness of our actions. Victory is ours.”
A flicker of mirth glinted in his grey eyes as he regarded his stately, stoic Shatrah. “If such is the case, Escah, then perhaps a smile can cross your lips for once in the time that I have known you. Your beauty can only be enhanced by it.”
In her typical fashion, Escah lowered her eyes to him, for she was a tall woman, and remarked, “Beauty is arbitrary; the way of Ytisa is paramount.”
Aras sighed good-naturedly, flicking an imaginary speck off of his hardened leather armor. “Ah, Escah, you break men’s hearts.”
He thought for an illusory moment that he saw a flicker of a smile as she responded, “Men are weak.”
“Truer words have never been spoken, especially in the presence of the likes of you. Tell me then, how is one to free a caged demon such as you? Am I to walk the fire-plains of Durel? I would do this.”
At this she sighed resignedly, never shifting her gaze from Aras, for in truth, she found him compelling. “Uthara,” she began, “you have a battle to wage and my duty is to Ytisa. I am of the chaste. The desires of the flesh hold no influence over me.”
“Hah! I say, hah! Your blood boils as all Qa’reni do, and yours more than most, I dare to say. But, you are right; there is a battle to be fought, and my fantasies of what secrets your barusa holds will have to wait for another day. However, make no mistake, I value your words.”
“Yours too, Uthara, I value, for there is truth and strength in them.”
“And do not forget that I see how you have not answered my question. I will get my answer.”
“As I have commanded before, you may call me Aras, as we are in a sense, equals.”
He sensed amusement in her eyes as she locked her gaze with his. “No, Uthara, I may not. The service of Ytisa prohibits it. And you may never command me, as you well know.”
Aras studied her again, following her long legs that rested comfortably in the stirrups of her Klath; noting how spectacularly her emerald tunic fit her body, and the way she sat so comfortably in the saddle. He was a man that got his women, and yet she was so unreachable to him; so incorruptible in her devotion to Ytisa.
“Shatrah, will you ride beside me in battle?”
She hid her shock at this request, for only the Uthara’s most trusted arm was given this honor. Each time it might be a different soldier, depending on the exploits of the previous battle, but to her knowledge no Devote to Ytisa had ever been offered this position
Escah swallowed hard as she contemplated the consequences of her decision and the chance to bring respect to her order. “I would be honored, Uthara. My blade is yours,” she invoked the traditional acceptance.
“Your blade is my shield,” Aras responded in the traditional manner. His offer was no idle offer to gain her interest. The Devotes of Ytisa were also women of the sword as theirs was a Goddess of Wisdom, War and Healing. They could hold their own as well as any of the peoples of the Qa’reni, save the Ghari. He had seen her fight and trusted her blade.
Aras turned his reptilian Klath around and headed back towards their concealed camp, Escah followed, glancing back once more towards the enemy. Something bothered her and she could not figure it out.
“Tarseg!” Aras called as he passed the sentry into the minimal camp. There were no tents up, only small lean-tos to provide shade as this was a battle camp.
“Uthara, coming!” Tarseg responded trotting over to his leader, then taking a knee as he rested his hand on the Klath’s snout; a sign of respect and trust.
A Klath was highly attuned to its rider and would bite the arm off of anybody it sensed its rider disliked or mistrusted, or even sensed for itself some danger to its master. For Tarseg to offer his arm in this matter meant he was no threat. Only Ghari rode Klath and those the Uthara favored, such as the Shatrah of Ytisa.
Aras regarded his top Ghari commander a moment before issuing him orders. “Take three Hreqarra once the light fades to the east end of the Illari wash; our enemy seeks to remain hidden from us there. Have Ughayr take one Hreqar to the west end.”
“Four Hreqqarra, Uthara? A thousand riders?” He asked surprised. “That will only leave you with two Hreqarra and the rest of that rabble that call themselves warriors. You can’t hope to assault with that!”
“Yes, as you have noted, it is not enough, that is because you will be the main assault. Ughayr will be the first feint, I will be the second, but I hope they will think I am the main. Once I have their forces turned and drawn out, then you will attack.”
“You honor me greatly, my Uthara-as you command!” He brought his fist to his chest and bowed.
“You honor me with your skill and tactics, and have earned this glory.”
“Each is to take a Devote with them,” Escah added before he left, “so we can communicate the orders, as I will be the honored sword in tomorrow’s battle and will know the time.”
A brief look of surprise flitted across Tarseg’s face. “As you wish, Shatrah!” He sped away to make preparations.
“Wise counsel, my Shatrah, but then, that is why I have you.” Aras had not discussed that with Escah, but what he had researched and learned at the Sanctum, and what the rest of the Ghari had trouble accepting, was that in the Time of Juth, the Uthara and the Shatrah were to become as one voice, one authority.
Aras smiled to himself. He held a secret that he had also learned in his studies, one that he would keep to himself until the appropriate time came, and then he would share it with Escah.