Struggling to hide her pout, Mila rode into camp with Rain’s retinue, displeased by the turn of events. This was supposed to be her journey to greatness, with Rain, Lin, and Song at her side, a chance to spread her wings and fly. Away from Mama’s stifling protection, Mila expected to blossom as both woman and warrior, fighting alongside her betrothed while risking life and limb for fame and fortune in a magnificent epic for the ages.
The reality was far from ideal. Though Mama was hundreds of kilometres away, her heavy-handed approach was still present in the guise of Tursinai and Tenjin. Though Mila was thankful for their presence, what with them saving her life yesterday and all, she couldn’t help but resent Tursinai for acting like nursemaid to a child, especially in full view of all those soldiers. Mila worked so hard to earn their respect, but it all flew away once the former Bannermen arrived to rescue her, though at the steep cost of glory and dignity. It was so infuriating to be treated like a child, Mila wanted to bury her head in the dirt and never come up.
Okay, so it’d been a mistake to rush into battle with Song instead of taking time to gather Rain’s retinue, but she did so well on her own. Fighting the Enemy, rallying the soldiers and inspiring them to action, for a short time, Mila was truly in command. The elites of the North followed her orders and entrusted their lives to her as she put years of harsh training and arduous drills to task, taking stock of the chaos around her while locked in mortal struggle against the Defiled. Seeing soldiers leap to obey filled her with pride, her first taste of command left her aching for more. More power, more responsibility, more freedom, it felt like all that and more was well within her grasp, Young Hero Sumila taking the Empire by storm, a legend in the making.
Except now, only a day later, even command of Rain’s retinue was denied to her. Not thirty minutes into their patrol, Tursinai ordered twenty of the best scouts and trackers off to the east before leading the rest of the retinue back towards camp. Mila’s ‘suggestion’ to continue scouting was promptly ignored, the giggling guardian gently chiding her to ‘stop dallying’. Most infuriating of all, Tursinai took command without complaint, every Sentinel falling in line without question, the mantle of leadership sitting firmly upon her shoulders. Even Rustram, the titular leader after Rain’s early departure, followed along without question, shrugging off Mila’s silent plea for aid. A shame, the former soldier showed such promise during the ambush, yet another talent suppressed by the weighty presence of former Bannerman Tursinai, the Whirling Death.
It’s not that Mila was ungrateful, but if Tursinai wanted to command, she only needed to ask and Mama would promote her to Senior Captain in a heartbeat, if not higher. Why did she feel the need to infringe on Mila’s chance to shine? Worse, Tursinai was only twenty-six years old, a mere nine years Mila’s senior, but already the distance between them seemed insurmountable. With Tenjin beside her, the two warriors effortlessly threw back the Defiled, soldiers rallying to them like moths to the flame, their actions speaking louder than Mila could ever hope to yell. No wonder Mama rarely praised Mila, she truely was merely ‘passable’. Aside from her early Awakening, all of her skills were attributed to Mama’s training rather than Mila’s own talent, a harsh truth to swallow. It was so disheartening, Mila rode straight for her tent, wanting nothing more than to bury her head beneath the covers and sulk.
It didn’t matter, she wasn’t needed here. Tenjin rode to Major Yuzhen’s tent to report while Song and Tursinai followed Mila, not allowing her a moment of peace even in the safety of camp. Suffocating is what it was, Tursinai probably never had a wet-nurse watching her every move when she was Mila’s age, and now she was the strongest of her generation aside from Gerel. That’s what Mila needed, a tempering in the fires of adversity. Only then could she rise to stand alongside Rain, Huu, and probably even Yan. The plucky half-deer beauty was undoubtedly thriving in the harsh conditions of the Central Province, rising to the challenge amid the discrimination and prejudice against half-beasts. How could Mila ever compare, swaddled and pampered here in the North?
It sounded so petty when she thought about it, to complain of being cared for, but the realization did little to improve her mood. Coming upon Rain cuddled with Lin, Aurie, and Mafu by the fire, she paused and watched with a pang of jealousy. Though Mila shared his bed for a few nights, Lin held Rain’s heart in her dainty hands. This touching scene only served to remind Mila she would always be the second wife at best. Though she wanted to be held and comforted, she didn’t want to make a scene and disturb Rain’s introspection or Lin’s slumber, forever doomed to be a stranger in her own marriage.
“Why the hesitation silly girl?” Tursinai whispered softly, pinching Mila’s cheek. “So deliciously shy even after sharing his bed, ah to be young again…”
Reddening, Mila brushed Tursinai’s hand away. “All we do is sleep, nothing more. I’m only there because of his nightmares. Without me, he’ll run his guards ragged, sending them off into the night chasing ghosts.” An excuse Mama was certain to poke holes through, but that was a matter for the future.
Giggling, Tursinai smirked. “I’’ll keep your secret girl, now go to your betrothed. A good soldier rests whenever she can.” Shoving Mila forward, she raised her voice and said, “Rain, your lovely Mila has returned to you.”
Stirring from his thoughts, Rain turned towards them and waved, his damp hair hanging loosely above his freshly washed face, a concerned look in his eyes. Waving her over, he asked, “Did something happen?”
“Nothing of note.” No pet name for her, though he had one for Lin and all his animals, nor was there space for her to sit. He hadn’t seemed too concerned for her safety either, merely nodding as she left to continue the patrol. No, this is silly, it was merely confidence in her abilities. Still, it wouldn’t have killed him to wish her safe or something. Shaking her head, Mila’s pout deepened. “I’m going back to bed.”
“I wouldn’t, not for a few minutes at least.” Reaching for her hand, he Sent, “Lin’s guards know where the Defiled are camped, we might move out to attack soon. Depends on Yuzhen’s decision, I suppose.”
Shooting Tursinai a dirty look, Mila snorted in frustration. So that’s where the scouts were going, to find a path the soldiers could follow in the dark. Would it have been so difficult to share the plan? Still holding his hand, she plopped down behind Rain with a heavy sigh, resting her head on his broad shoulders. All her insecurities and worries were for naught, there was more at stake than her silly pride. This was so unlike her, why was she making mountains out of mole hills?
Kissing her fingers, Rain Sent, “Is everything all right?”
So unfair, already so skilled and natural at Sending, his concern and love were easily heard through his ‘voice’. Unwilling to embarrass herself by responding in kind, she shook her head and whispered, “It’s nothing, just tired.”
“Then rest, my love. I’m sure Yuzhen won’t mind if you stay with the camp, someone has to defend the wounded.”
Hiding her smile, she pressed herself closer to him, still idly shaking her head. His love, he says, so sweet. “No, I want to go fight the Defiled. Someone else can babysit.”
“Okay. You hungry?”
Shaking her head again, she sighed and banish her negative thoughts and worries. Closing her eyes, she basked in the warmth of his body, silently laughing at herself. Rain didn’t treat her any worse than Lin, only concerned for their safety, but also respectful of their wishes. No need to be sour at Tursinai either, the woman was only doing the job Mama gave her, a sign of love and concern. Better to focus on learning from the peerless warrior rather than sulking in defeat and hiding away in her tent. Seeking Balance, Mila channelled her Chi and prepared herself, looking forward to clashing with the Defiled once more, only this time with Rain watching her back.
A few simple words from him and all was well, the blockhead ignorant of what he’d done. If only she could do the same for him. An infuriating man, he kept his troubles all bottled inside, unwilling or unable to share them with her. No matter, Rain was strong, he would see himself through these troubled times if needed, and she was here for him no matter what. Soon, the sighs and faraway looks would fade and she would have her smiling, hardworking Beloved back. Even if she were the second, third, or fourth wife, it wouldn’t matter, because Rain would love her all the same.
Though Mother have mercy on him if he thought he could collect wives as freely as he collected pets. No matter how much she loved him, there was only so much Mila would tolerate.
The Spirits roused Vithar from his rest, warning him of impending danger. Foolish southerners, so ignorant of the ancestor’s blessings, like children covering their eyes and ears as they ran headlong into danger. Without the protection of their own ancestors, Vithar’s ancestors were free to keep watch on the southerners, giving him plenty of notice to prepare for his visitors. Rising from his new fur cloak, made from the strange beasts his enemies rode, he yawned and stretched, savouring the aches and bruises of battle.
Dawn approached, and with it came new glory to claim and fresh blood to shed.
Kicking his tribesmen into action, he sent his scouts to meet their foe and take stock of their numbers. Though wise and all-knowing, the ancestors offered few details of the enemy’s numbers or positions, likely so Vithar would not grow too reliant on their advice. While waiting, he reached into his pot and pulled out a bone, grinding it to bits between his powerful teeth. The meat and marrow had been devoured during yesterday’s revelries, honouring the ancestors for their aid. Today, his people were well-fed and well-rested, more than a match for whatever forces the enemy had brought to his camp.
His scouts returned with news of four-thousand riders approaching camp from the west. A shame, less than two southerners for every one of his riders, barely enough to fill the bellies of his garos. The rest must have been left behind to guard to their wounded, another confusing southern mannerism. No matter, after their victory here, Vithar would lead his people west to execute the wounded, putting an end to this ‘army’ which rode to the city’s aid. Kicking the battered skull of Kalil aside, Vithar sighed with a twinge of regret. Perhaps he should have let the old warrior live a day longer, for he feared that now the enemy lacked any warriors capable of presenting a challenge.
Bringing his riders North, he planned to circle around and strike his enemy from behind. A garo uses its full strength even when hunting a child, and Vithar would do the same. The night sky slowly brightened as the minutes passed, his eyes picking out colours in the gloom as he rode, his garo slavering in anticipation of another meal. Odd how the sun rose every morning and set every night. He’d grown accustomed to months of darkness at a time, followed by months of sunlight. There was nothing like fighting in complete darkness, an exhilarating challenge of relying only on touch, sound, and smell to sense your opponents. Perhaps then these southerners would present a challenge, but he doubted it. Even with all their torches and light, the southern army was a disgrace, barring a few pleasant surprises.
Taking a short stop to water and rest the garos, Vithar smiled at the new tidings brought by his scouts. The enemy continued east directly towards the city, with no scouts to speak of and wholly unaware of his presence. Had he remained in place at camp, the enemy would have marched right past him, oblivious of the danger in their rush to ‘save’ the city. Such was the cost of ignorance, spawned from a combination of these forgiving lands and blatant disregard of their ancestors. Children playing at the games of warriors, victory would come easily.
And to think, the old bandit wanted Vithar to sit idle for days, waiting for this army to arrive at the city’s doorstep. Then again, it would have been a more sporting battle, Vithar’s tribesmen joined by five-thousand southern believers, against twelve-thousand of the enemy. A shame, but this would have to suffice. Leading his riders south at an easy pace, he headed straight towards the enemy without a care in the world. Weary from their long travels and a sleepless night, lacking the guidance of the ancestors and riding meek horses, these soldiers presented no challenge to Vithar and his tribesmen.
Vithar heard his scout returning long before he saw him. Recklessly riding through the forest, the noisy scout moved as if chased by a herd of starving Ursadon’s. Bursting through the trees, the scout gestured behind him, yelling, “Raise the alarm, the enemy is he-”
Blood sprouted as an arrow appeared in his throat, the corpse bouncing on the garo’s back a single time before tumbling off. A hiss of air followed immediately after, an arrow piercing into his forearm as it raised to shield him, his axe in hand to bat away the projectiles. Snarling in fury, he kicked his garo into a charge, running towards the unseen enemy pelting his tribesmen with arrows.
The arrows were few in number, though enough to infuriate Vithar to no end. This was not how a warrior fought, hiding in shadows from afar. Blade to blade and eye to eye, such was the proper method of taking lives, a lesson he intended to teach first-hand. Trees and arrows whipped by in the brightening dawn as his garo charged, only catching glimpses of brown and black moving amid the vibrant forest greenery. Bounding through the trees in search of his prey, he spotted movement behind a massive trunk and with a triumphant roar, he cleaved through the wood with a single slash, revealing… Nothing.
Fucking shadows in the wind.
An arrow glanced off his bone-armour with enough force to draw blood. Gnashing his teeth, Vithar turned to spot a runty child escaping on a fat beast, disappearing into the forest like a Wraith. Rage overcoming him, he ignored the warnings of the ancestors and directed his tribesmen to follow, pushing his garo to run faster in chase of the child. Pinked by a child with a bow, Vithar would devour him alive for this humiliation, flay the flesh from his bones while he screamed for hours on end.
The treeline disappeared abruptly as Vithar rode into a clearing, his breath catching at the sight of dozens of soldiers arrayed before him. A voice shouted, “Loose,” and his eyes tracked the speaker, landing on the child who’d lured him here, wearing a murderous scowl fit for a true warrior of the North. Vithar almost laughed before the arrows struck, knocking the air from his lungs as he sailed away, thrown from his dead or dying garo.
Landing hard in the tall grass, Vithar blinked at the wooden arrows protruding from his chest, like tiny spears planted in the dirt. A single hilt ruined the imagery, a thrown knife just barely missing his heart, yet somehow burning him from within. Stifling his groans, he sat up and pulled on the knife hilt, an inhuman sound tearing from his throat as the heated metal slid from his flesh, burning the wound shut. Blood frothing from his mouth, he gasped and tossed the blade aside, moving on to the arrows that remained. Most of the projectiles barely penetrated his armour, aside from one metal shaft buried so deep he couldn’t get his fingers around the blood-soaked protrusion. Calling on the ancestors for strength, he pushed himself to his feet and leaned on his axe, unable to draw breath to sound the retreat. Helpless, he watched his tribesmen die one by one as they filtered into the clearing.
Hobbling away, he flagged down a tribesman and mounted the garo, handing the horn on his belt to his rescuer. A few gestures was all it took to convey his message, the signal for retreat booming through the forest. Turning to look back, Vithar spotted the enemy riding in on their horses, cutting down his people as they fled. Cold calculation confirmed his suspicions: it would be impossible to escape on a garo burdened by two riders.
Crushing his rescuer’s neck with a single hand, Vithar tossed the corpse aside and took the reins. Heading north and east with all the speed the beast could muster, he hoped to reach the five-thousand allied southerners camped outside the city before his enemy caught him. Any of his tribesmen who survived would do the same, and together, they would crush these hateful southerners another day. A cunning ploy, distracting him with the vulnerable army to the south and striking with a second, well-hidden army from the west, those fearsome arrows and projectiles almost put an end to Vithar. Again, the leather and fur-clad southerners showed their mettle, easily discerned from the metal encased weaklings that made up the majority of southerners. It seemed he lacked no end of challenge so long as Kalil’s people survived.
Bleeding from a dozen wounds, bruised ribs and a pierced lung, Vithar faded in and out of consciousness as he rode, the ancestors whispering in his dreams.
Death calls to you, comes for your fleshly vessel.
Join us and together, we will wreak immeasurable destruction upon your enemies.
Snorting awake, Vithar shook his head and growled. “I’m not dead yet. Away with your nagging and tend to my injuries.” With renewed focus and flagging strength, he rode towards the city, alone but determined to survive and fight another day. Though he’d been defeated, he still drew breath, and Vithar was not a man to make the same mistake twice.
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|