Atarah was six years old when she realized her family was not like other families. Her papa didn’t come through her door when she was scared of monsters in the middle of the night, sitting bolt upright in bed, shivering.
There was nothing but empty attic above her room, but the floorboards creaked and groaned like someone was walking on them. If she listened really hard, she thought she could hear the rattle and clank of dragging metal. Father Ulben from the Temple of Tyr said damned souls trying to escape judgement had chains.
The creak of footsteps stopped, then started again faster, then stopped with a final thump. Was it the wind that made that sighing sound throughout the house, or something else? “Papapapapapa-!”
Her papa materialized at the foot of her bed. He was translucent and tinged with warm colors, like a piece of parchment scraped so thin the light showed through. He smiled at her.
“No more monsters now, little one.” He made no sound, but she could read the words on his lips as though he was speaking just like anyone else. He blew her a kiss and waggled his fingers at her until she giggled. Then he pointed firmly at her pillow and mimed laying her head back down. “I am protecting you. Go back to sleep. ”
“Ok, papa. I love you.” Atarah snuggled back down under her blankets and screwed her eyes shut. After a few moments she felt the mattress shift as though someone had sat down beside her, and the sensation of someone not-there stroking her hair. Far far away, her papa was singing a good-night song.
Her brother Aelius was six years old when Atarah was born. He stopped going to the Shrine with them to see their papa when he was fourteen, and he was angry. Atarah didn’t understand why.
Twice a year, on the solstices, they went to the Shrine to see their papa. It was the only time he would hug them, talk to them like everybody else, laugh, eat dinner with them, play games and tell stories - like everybody else’s papa. They had Kastris, sure, to look after them at home along with mama, but he wasn’t their papa (as Aelius would yell loudly before slamming the door and leaving the house for days).
The Shrine was usually empty on the Solstices, with everyone at the temples of other gods, or going to parties. They had their papa all to themselves, with only a Sister or two around. All day, they would be a normal family, and then after dinner papa would read them all a story, kiss them goodnight, and send them home with Kastris. Mama stayed behind until morning.
Atarah snuck back, one winter’s night when she was ten, and peeked inside. She followed the murmured sound of her papa’s deep voice to a tiny bedroom in the back of the Shrine. Mama was sitting on the bed, and she had been crying, but papa had his arms around her just like he did for Atarah in her dreams, when she’d had a bad one. After a while, mama looked up at papa and he kissed her on the lips, slowly.
Atarah left after that.
Atarah was thirteen, with four younger siblings, when she learned the story about why she could only see her papa on the solstices. There was a book in the library she didn’t remember seeing before - the binding new and unbroken, the paper within clean and white. It was a thin book, and when she opened it, the title page read in beautiful script: “Our Friends, Ascended”
It was a collection by the bard Kayleigh Shorthalt of true tales about heroes and demigods and adventurers. One section was titled “Summerheart” - it was the story of her father.
Pyrrhus Auraest had been a paladin, a hero of faith, who followed the Old Code and the god Ignis Divine, defending the small folk and destroying evil wherever he found it across Faerun. He met and fell in love with a noblewoman living in Goldenfields, but their happiness was short lived.
The paladin’s enemies - for he had many; tyrants whose plans he’d foiled, dark cults whose predations he had stopped - found him. A great wolf-beast had torn out his heart and murdered him. But the paladin had so impressed the gods with his faith and good works that they granted him a measure of their divine spark.
Pyrrhus came back as a demigod at the next solstice and defeated his enemies which had conquered in his absence. He was not yet very powerful as his worship was young, the bard noted, but growing. He was known to appear at the Shrine to the Unconquered Knight on the solstices and his portfolio included sunlight, fatherhood, family, and the tenets of the Old Code.
Atarah had snapped the book shut and put it back on the shelf. The date the bard had listed for her father’s death was two years before her own birth. She went alone to the Shrine, knelt before the niche-altar with her father’s image, and prayed:
“Papa. I read your story, the one that Kayleigh wrote. I guess that means I can talk to you like this, instead of waiting for solstice. I miss you papa. I want to be a hero like you, so I can be with you more. So I’m going to be a paladin, just like you were.”
She kissed the image’s forehead, mimed a hug, and left, straight to the temple of Torm to present herself as candidate. The sensation of a fatherly hug in return surrounded her until she left the Shrine.
Atarah was sixteen when she had the first chance to be a hero. One of her noble playmates - all grown up now - went to visit the lands of a potential suitor with her family and retainers, and invited Atarah along. Lord Stondoth was wealthy, and hard, but he didn’t look too bad, and Atarah supposed it was a good match, otherwise.
Until she went walking on her own one day, down to the villages that worked the Lord’s land. There were nearly more soldiers (hah, she had thought to herself when she caught some ‘drilling’, they barely deserved the name) infesting the village than peasants, and they were all making general nuisances of themselves. She thought they were harmless, more or less, a Lord’s idiosyncrasies, until she heard the commotion.
Five guards - five too many! - were dragging out a woman from one of the bedraggled houses. She had an infant in her arms and three following her, in varying states of distress. The eldest was holding a younger sibling, and in the set of his angry gaze Atarah saw her brother. The guards were speaking. “Ye’ve been caught hoarding food fer the last time, Evani. Ye know that’s fer the Lord!”
The mother, Evani, had some spirit in her left, at least. “Ye’ve already kilt my husband, how else d’ye expect me to feed them!?”
The soldiers growled and cuffed her across the face. They took her up the hill and Atarah didn’t see her anymore. The eldest boy - he couldn’t have been more than six or seven himself - took his weeping brother by the hand, his stone-faced sister in his other arm, and led them back to their hovel.
Atarah sent a note back to her noble friend at the keep that she definitely did not want to marry this one, and she should leave maybe because his fortunes were about to take an abrupt turn for the worse. She spent the better part of six months with Lord Stondoth’s people (All she had to say was “I’m Summerheart’s daughter” to gain their cooperation and trust), teaching them to use what they had, and formulating a plan.
She was not going to meet her papa at midsummer solstice this year - the final attack, the completion of her and the villagers’ plans - was scheduled for that evening. The morning of the solstice she sat by herself in the corner of her room, holding a copper sundisk with her father’s symbol etched in it, and prayed.
The symbol lit up like the sunrise, and for a moment she felt her papa’s presence, his hand on her shoulder. “I’m proud of you, my daughter. My paladin. My Atarah. It’s your turn to protect others from the monsters.”
Atarah grinned. She donned her armor, picked up her sword, and led her people to battle.