|General Halvar placed a hand on my shoulder as the ship pulled into the harbor. “Welcome home, Asta.”
I winced at his touch.
“Do you remember why I brought you here?” he asked.
I looked up at the land mass before us.
Holger, the Island of Spears. I knew only rumors about this country. Their warriors couldn’t be defeated in battle, their population was larger than any other nation, and their schools offered the best curriculums. I used to think of it as a massive piece of land floating in the middle of the ocean, with foreboding clouds constantly roiling above. I used to have such an active imagination.
The actual island was far smaller than I pictured. I could see the whole of it with a turn of my head. Food vendors along the pier called out to passersby, women shopped, children played and weaved around horse-drawn carriages. Laughter drew my gaze to a couple attempting to take a schooner out to open waters. Fishing ships heavily laden with full nets pulled in beside us. I could smell the dead fish from my place on the poop deck.
I swallowed the bile traveling up my throat. “I’ve been chosen for a special task.”
“That’s right.” The general finally released my shoulder and stepped around me. His mismatched eyes, one misty white and the other gleaming like liquid copper, bored into mine. “Are you ready?”
I cowered out of habit, but straightened when I realized what I was doing. “Yes, sir.”
A grin stretched the burned side of the general’s face. “Praise be to Dotharr.”
“Praise be to Dotharr,” I said.
I stared at the elbow he offered me for a moment, entertaining fantasies about grabbing it and tossing the general overboard. I forced myself to take the elbow and follow him across the main deck instead. He waited patiently while I lifted the skirt of my dress and stepped onto the gangplank. After two weeks of suffering in men’s clothing, I had been given a bath and a new dress this morning. It didn’t make up for what had been done to me, but I couldn’t help feeling slightly grateful. Suddenly, I was a lady again and not a prisoner. Letters along the ship’s hull caught my eye: The Great Disaster.
I remembered everything then with a sudden clarity that made me gasp. My family. My home in Kenshore. The raid. The fires. Being dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the ruins of my town and onto this vessel. I tore my gaze from the hull and blinked away tears.
“Something wrong?” the general asked.
I swallowed hard. “I was simply admiring the ship from this new vantage point, sir.”
The double-masted ship was painted red-brown, with cream-colored sails and a single red flag. A wooden carving of a scantily-clad woman with a devilish smile and an outstretched sword clung to the bow. The seamen scurried up the ratlines to secure the sails while the copper-eyed warriors clamored down the gangplank. I shied away from them as they passed.
The noises of the city and the light of the sun made my head pound. I kept my sensitive eyes half-lidded and fixed on the planks of wood that made up the pier. I had gotten into the habit of breathing through my mouth to avoid overwhelming my nose on the ship, but the open air helped minimize the potency of the different odors wafting toward me.
“Dotharr’s blessings might seem even more burdensome the deeper into the city we go,” General Halvar said. “But you’ll learn to better control your abilities at Dotharr’s Academy.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The last two men to disembark from the ship stopped beside us.
“Asta, you remember Tarben and Manning?” the general said, gesturing to each as he named them. “They will be your personal guards while I’m away.”
“D-Do I need protecting, sir?”
General Halvar chuckled. “You’re the first woman and outsider to be chosen by our Heavenly Master of Warriors. Until you’ve learned how to use your new abilities to properly defend yourself, you will most definitely need protecting. Come along now.”