This is the tale we tell our daughters.
There was a time, before Harimad-sol and Corlath-sola, before the Northerners swept down to crush us with their magic, before Harimad-sol pulled a mountain down upon them, before the triumph of Kentarre and her archers against the Outlander army at the Castelath Plains, when soldier-women were not judged on the precision of their blade or the strength of their kelar, but pushed aside, asked to sit and wait and fear as their men fought what battles needed fighting. There was a time when the glory of Queen Aerin was thought to be myth only, when her deeds were attributed to Tor the Just, for the Hillfolk had forgotten how close they came to losing Damar to the fires of Maur and the sorcerers from the north, to the whole of the Hills melting into desert and plain.
It is always darkest, our grandmothers say, before the dawn.
During this dark time, a horsebreeder’s daughter entered the trials. Othalan-sol she would become, the Lost Damalur-sol, but when she greeted the kysin on the Plain of Tor, he hailed her as Otholey, son of Efrahim, though her father had no son. Her disguise fooled all that looked upon her, for our ancestors did not know as we now do that our daughters can ride like they were born in the saddle, that they can heft a sword with a steady hand, if we teach them.
The kysin, it is said, saw only the sword at her side and the way her steed Therana moved with her like they shared one mind. He handed her the white armband of the candidate with only a compliment on the quality of her mount. Even after the first day, when it became clear she would compete in the churakak, when all eyes were on her, the men watching from the sides were so blinded by their false beliefs that they never realized their mistake.
The women in the audience? Who can say - we only hear whispers of their tales, passed down as part of Othalan-sol’s story. Some say the women knew, that they saw the grace with which Othalan-sol cut down her competitors, and chose to help keep her secret. It may be that they are part of the reason we know of Othalan’s first triumph, for it is known to all that stories beget stories.
Before the churakak, Artem, son of the King’s Rider Alferan, was favored by all to win. As the day grew long, the crowd watched them cut down their opponents, both moving like the farmer who cuts down the hay after a long summer – one stroke, again and again. Stalerath, who guarded the north passes against the forces of the sorcerer Gindur, faced the churakak against Artem that day, it is said, but Artem was victorious.
Finally, as the torches were lit against the dark of the evening, all that remained was the two of them, facing each other across the Plain of Tor. It is said that for a moment, the world was silent, that if you listened even in the deserts of the South you could hear their swords sing as they clashed for the first time.
We know that the duels rarely last more than a few minutes – that strength of arm or speed of sword or quality of mount is almost always enough to decide the trial quickly. But Therana and Artem’s horse Irsehel were equals, and they fought each other with a fierceness that matched their riders, until they were flecked with sweat and spit. And for forty minutes – yes, as long as that - their riders were equals as well, each strike met with a response, the crowd silent in awe and admiration the whole time. Never has the City seen such a churakak, never before or since. And no one doubts it could have gone on longer – except that Artem slipped. He was the son of a Rider, and should have known better, but he was tired, and the dark was creeping in despite the torches. Between one moment and the next, the tip of his sword sliced along her cheek, the same path that a lover’s hand might follow.
“Baga,” said one voice to the front of the crowd, and it drew Artem up short, for now he could see what he had done, the line of blood arcing from eye to jaw, and he could not move for the shame.
In that moment, Othalan pressed her advantage, and Artem’s sash fell away from him. It was over.
There is no record of King Perabeth’s reaction, his removal of Othalan’s sash, or of the words he said afterward. What we know is this – when she was hailed as laprun-minta, as Otholey, son of Efrahim, her father stepped out of the crowd. He had followed her, knowing what she would attempt and knowing in his heart that he had trained her well, and he found that he could not bear to watch as she denied her true self.
“I am Efrahim,” he said to his king, his voice carrying to the edge of the Plain, “but I have no son. Before you stands my daughter, Othalan, who has earned her place as laprun-minta.”
The king was left with a dilemma. It had never been stated that women could not ride in the laprun trials, but it had to his knowledge never been done. Women had their place among the people of the Hills, and the king believed it was an important one – to care for the children that were the future of their people, to heal the sick and, when necessary, soothe the dying. Women made meals that nourished and clothes that kept men warm. Women did not need to swing a sword, as men did.
But then he looked at Othalan as if for the first time, her back straight and tall, hand on her horse’s withers and no fear in her eyes; he saw her blood, glistening in the torchlight against the golden skin of her cheek. He must have thought of his own daughters, then, of his wishes for them, of the kelar singing in their blood. And he must have thought, too, of the stories, assumed to be myth, of Queen Aerin.
At that time, someone in the crowd pushed him to a decision. “Artem is laprun-minta!” the man shouted, and a murmur went through the men and women amassed on the Plain.
“No,” the king said softly, and then a little louder, “No. Artem was defeated. And Artem drew blood. Though I love his father with all my heart, even if Artem had won, he could be no laprun-minta. Othalan is victorious.”
The cheering, they say, was subdued – the men in the crowd did not know how to react. It had been the best churakak they had seen in years, the best and truest show of skill, and they would have been prepared to cheer Otholey son of Efrahim until his dying day. But they did not know how to react to Othalan, even with their king’s pronouncement.
It took years for them to realize what Othalan was – a true damalur-sol, the kind of warrior worthy of songs and stories. It wasn’t until her most famous deed, the one all of the Hillfolk tell and retell, that she was hailed as such. And then, as we all know, she was not around to hear it.
The only one who always, from the moment she was named laprun-minta, gave her exactly her measure of respect and approbation was Artem, son of Alferan, who pledged his life to her as she rode away from the Plain of Tor. Some say he vowed to atone for his clumsiness in the churakak, others that his kelar showed him the damalur-sol she would become and that this drove him to aid her in her cause.
Yet there is still another explanation. Some say he saw her, standing tall and proud before her king, unashamed of her deception and fearing no reprisal – for who could touch her? – and fell in love. We know that he rode with her until the day she disappeared, and that he never stopped searching for her until the end of his days. We know he kept the story of the Lost Damalur-sol and her deeds alive, so that we have them even unto this day. Whether love and loyalty were the same for him, no one can say.
What we can say for sure, though, is that after the year that Othalan was laprun-minta, there were always a few girls prepared to ride in the trials – openly, for Othalan’s victory made it certain that never again would the daughters of the Hills have to turn away from their gifts.