The Warrior's Tale

 
 

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CHAPTER ONE: DEMON AT THE GATES

I am Captain Rali Emilie Antero, late of the Maranon guard. I am a soldier and a soldier I intend to remain until the Dark Seeker slips my guard. Like most soldiers I praise firm ground under my boots, well-made and well-tended weapons and a hot bath and a hot meal after a long forced march. In short, I'm of practical mind and trust common sense over a wizard's blatherings.

For two years, however, I trod the wooden decks of a ship-of-the-line. I fought with rusted blades and was glad we had them. I bathed in cold seas and ate what I could, when I could. I was lost in the uncharted


 
  Western Oceans, and doubted I'd ever see my home again. As for common sense, it was nearly my undoing; and it was trust in a wizard and magic that saved me.

My exploits - and those of my soldiers - have been praised by many. Mythmakers have already coined golden tales of our epic chase across thousands of miles to end history's greatest evil. The stake, they say, was destiny itself, with all civilization hanging in the balance. Truth has been sorely wounded in these myths and with it the lessons learned from so much bloodshed. Without those lessons, if someday darkness threatens again, we may find ourselves disarmed. Besides, I think you'll discover in this case the truth makes a more stirring tale than its prettier sister.

But before you enrich that thief at the book stall for these adventures, I have a caution: I am a woman. If you object, keep your coin and depart. I shall not miss your presence. All others are welcome to my hearth - this journal. If it's cold, stoke the fire and warm your bones. If you thirst, there's a hot jug of mulled wine just by the hearth stone. If you hunger, shout up the mess steward for that cold joint I had


 

 

her put by. Your company is my pleasure.

My Scribe warns me some beseeching of the gods and goddesses of journal writing is in order here. But I've my own deities to keep content and they're a jealous lot. I've told the old fool a sword beats a quill any day, so the gentle gods of ink are out of luck. My prayers are saved for those who keep my blood in my skin, and that tight and whole about my bones.

At the outset, I gave the Scribe one further order. The words he writes must be mine and mine alone. I do not give a dry wineskin if he objects to my choice of phrases. I will speak the truth - be it bald as his pate, or plain as that pale, chinless thing he calls a face. The truth doesn't need a Scribe's garlands to sweeten its path. But this fellow is a stubborn, quarrelsome sort - not unlike the three I've already dismissed. I've told him if he persists I'll cut off his head and mount it on a post outside my door as a warning to his successor. The Scribe says he fears more for his reputation than his head. He keeps babbling about Scholarship and Art. This is a history, he insists, not a barracks' yarn.


 

 


I claim the opposite and see no shame. For in arms this story began and in arms it ended. In between there's many a fallen warrior to mourn and many a deed to honor. It's bad luck to kill a Scribe. Besides, he works for my brother, and I've promised Amalric to return him in good condition. In the interest of family peace I'll let him live. And I hereby warrant all blame for what follows is upon my head and I so warn the reader.

This then, is my tale.

* * *

There are those who claim there were evil omens by the cartful on the morning my story begins: nursing mothers whose milk suddenly soured; a two-headed piglet born to a tavern keeper's sow; newly sharpened swords mysteriously gone dull at the Armory; a witch whose bone-casting cup shattered in


 

 

mid-toss. There's even a yarn about an Evocator who went mad and turned his wife and mother-in-law into a matched pair of oxen.

I couldn't say. On the day in question I woke with a blazing hangover. It took a long and agonizing moment to orient myself. In happier times I'd have been lying on the big soft bed in the charming home that was my due as commander of the Maranon Guard. Next to me would have been the beautiful Tries. Ahead would be a day that started with a bit of a tickle and a snuggle, a hearty breakfast, and a brisk hour of exercise with the steel-muscled women who make up the Guard. Instead, I found myself in a narrow, bachelors' quarters room, cramped on an iron cot... and very much alone. I'd fled my own home three weeks before after our final, angry row. And the previous evening I'd seen my former lover in the company of a fellow Guardswoman with a notorious reputation. She was considered darkly handsome by some, but to my mind she was greasy, wanted bathing and had the shadow of a budding mustache on her upper lip. She was sure to be the ruin of my innocent Tries.


 

 

I'd treated my wounded feelings with first one jug of hot spiced wine, then another until evening became late night, a blur of loud song, alley stumblings, perhaps a fight, and finally the release of falling stuporous upon that hard bed.

I enjoy strong drink - but rarely to excess. The Goddess blessed me with a quick, powerful body, eyes that can count the lice in the feathers of a distant sparrow and a clear, agile brain. This is no boast, but only the particulars of the gifts I was born with. I did nothing to earn these things, so have always seen it my duty to keep all in as fine a fighting order as the weapons I carry. Drink is as great an enemy to the body and mind as dirt and rust are to a sturdy blade.

All these things I told myself, as Madame Shame hounded me from the bed and I put my bare feet on the cold stone floor. As a thousand booted troops marched through my head and a thousand more squatted on my tongue, rebellion broke out in my belly, and I rushed for the chamber pot to surrender my innards. As I knelt there making a drunkard's penance, it suddenly came to me this was my


 

 

mother's feast day. Each year, on the anniversary of her death, my family gathers at Amalric's villa to honor her memory. I retched again as Dame Guilt - that old fishwife - shrilled with joy at a new weakness revealed.

Drunk on this day, of all days, she tsked. I'm not drunk, damn you! I snarled back. I'm only suffering from drink. It was Tries's fault, the slut! Go ahead, blame that poor girl, Dame Guilt whined. Meanwhile, your mother's ghost will flee your foul breath and be forced into the company of strangers. She'll wander the earth mourning the low state her darling daughter has fallen into.

"Begone, damn you!" I bellowed. Then I groaned, for I'd shouted aloud and another angry mob charged about my belly. As I hunched over the chamber pot, the door swung open behind me.

"I see we're at prayer to the porcelain goddess," came a sarcastic voice. "You are an inspiration to us all, my captain."


 
 


I wiped my chin, came to my feet, and with as much dignity as I could muster, turned to confront my new challenger. It was Corais, one of my chief legates. She was slender and wiry and reminded me of a cat - especially the way she grinned and toyed with her game before she ate it. At the moment, I was her mouse, and she was hugely enjoying my misery.

"Leave off, Legate," I growled. "I'm in no mood for sarcasm."

Corais's grin only grew wider, sharp white teeth flashing behind sensuous lips, dark eyes sparkling with amusement. "I never would've guessed, Captain," she said. "You hide your troubles so well I doubt there's a woman in the Guard who knows Tries has banned you from her bed... and taken up with another."

I slumped on the cot, defeated. "Don't tell me," I moaned. "I was shouting it from the roof tops, wasn't


 
  I?"

"Not shouting, exactly," Corais said. "But you certainly were in good voice. And although our fair city's roofs remained safe, Polillo did have to drag you down from the water tower on the parade ground."

As I picked at this new scab of humiliation, another voice joined us. It rumbled down the hallway like distant thunder:

"Who speaks my name?" The voice was followed by heavy bootsteps and an immense form filled the doorway. The speaker continued: "By the Goddess who made me, I swear if I catch someone talking behind my back, I'll cut off her left tit and have it tanned for my purse."

It was Polillo, who, with Corais, was my other chief legate. As she said the last words, she ducked under the doorway, and strode into the room. Polillo was well over seven feet tall, with amazingly long


 
  shapely legs and a perfectly proportioned figure padded just enough to hide ropy muscles that became steely knots when she hefted her battle ax. Her skin was nearly as fair as mine, and where my hair was golden, hers was closer to a light brown. If she'd been a courtesan instead of a warrior, Polillo would've soon made her fortune.

When she saw it was me sitting on the bed, she was instantly taken aback. "Oh... I'm sorry, Captain. I didn't know—" I waved her to silence. "I'm the one who owes apologies all around," I said. "But if you really feel the need - the line starts behind the chamber pot."

Polillo boomed laughter and clapped me on the back, nearly breaking my shoulder with her good humor. "You just need a good fight to set you straight, Captain, " she said. "And unless those sniveling Lycanthians turn coward, you'll get it soon enough."

The mention of Lycanth opened the door to responsibility. I groaned to my feet, stripped off my sleeping tunic and padded to the basin. A servant had crept in while I slept and there was a pitcher of still-steaming water, perfumed with a cleansing aromatic on a pedestal next to the basin.

I called over my shoulder to Corais, "What's the news?" In the mirror, I saw Corais shrug. "No news, really. Just a lot of rumors... some good... some bad. The only thing that's certain is we're still on the road to war."

Three weeks before, the Archons of Lycanth had tossed down the gauntlet - sending out a warfleet to sever our links with our allies and harass our trading ships. Their action had come the very day Tries and I'd gone our separate, stormy ways. And as I speak these words to the Scribe, I realize there was no coincidence. My profession was at the heart of our quarrel, and since my profession is war, the news from Lycanth fell like a sword between us.

"War might be certain," I said to Corais, gloomy, "but what's not is whether our exalted leadership will allow the Maranon Guard to serve."

Polillo sputtered. "But we're the finest soldiers in Orissa. I'd match any one of us against any ten men from any barracks or drill field in the city. Why, in the name of Maranon, wouldn't they let us fight?"

She was only exaggerating our abilities a little, but the answer to her question was in my mirror, as I saw the reflection of my body. Inside, I was a warrior. But in a world commanded by men, the outside made me something less in their view. I saw the tilt in my long neck and knew it to be dainty in appearance - never mind the cables that leaped up when I hefted my sword; my skin has always been my pride: it's pleasing to the eye and touch, but suffers little from heat, cold, or hard exercise; although I'm past thirty summers, my breasts are firm and high, with nipples of virginal pink; the tuck of my waist is sharp; my hips, although narrow, flare like a bell; and finally, I saw the golden triangle between my thighs that marked my sex.

It was unlikely the Magistrates would let us fight for three - for them - very good reasons: (1) We were women; (2) We were women; and (3) We were women.

Everyone in Orissa knows of the Maranon Guard, but few know much about it - other than the obvious fact it is composed solely of women. We are an elite unit whose beginnings stretch back into the city's dim history. Our usual force is five hundred souls, although in war it's reinforced to nearly twice that number. We all praise the name and pledge our lives to the service of Maranonia, the Goddess of War. We must forswear men upon entering the Guard - although, for most of us, this isn't much of a strain. I'm not unusual in my taste for a woman's company, and a woman's love. Besides, in this so called civilized age we live in, the Maranon Guard is the only world a woman can escape to if she does not wish to be a wife, a mother, or a whore. Among those who still yearn for a man's bed, the trade off is certainly not worth the price of a mounting.

My silence did nothing to stop Polillo's probing. As I finished washing and dressed, she kept worrying at the subject, like a gutter lizard with a pig bone.

"They're sure to let us march with the men," Polillo insisted. "Isn't that so, Corais?"

Corais gave another of her elegant shrugs. It was the kind that answered questions that hadn't been thought of yet. She was a small, slender woman, with beautiful dark features. Although she was no weakling, speed and cunning was her game. I alone in the Guard could best her with a sword - and I'm not boasting when I say that in all my years as a soldier, I've yet to meet my better with a blade.

"If we march, we march," I said. "If we don't, we'll accept whatever mission they give us. We must be ready - no matter what our orders."

My outward attitude was a lie. Inside I was burning with more than the affects of too much wine. The Maranon Guard had rarely been hurled into distant combat. Although we'd proven ourselves many times in our long and honorable history by fighting last ditch stands at our city's gates, the Magistrates and Evocators consistently refused our pleas to join our brother warriors in battle on foreign shores. We were a force of last resort, we were told. Our holy mission was to guard Orissa. But there was not a woman among us who did not know the real reason, and that was our sex; which made us lowly beings - pretty pet things that must be protected - in our leaders' eyes.

Polillo stamped her foot in a fury. "I'll fight," she vowed. "And there's not a man in this city who can stop me!"

"You'll do as you're ordered," I snapped. "And if you wish to remain a legate, you'll keep your views to yourself. I'll not have the women riled up by a lot of hot talk."

"Yes, Captain," Polillo said. But her head drooped and her full lips trembled. "It's not fair."

Corais patted her, soothing. "Why don't we get in a little work with your ax?" she said. "We'll write the names of the Council of Magistrates on the practice dummies and you can lop off their heads."

Polillo wiped away a solitary tear and made a smile. She was a woman who was quick to anger - sometimes dangerously so - and wore her heart pinned to her tunic. But her saving grace was that her good humor was usually easy to restore.

"You're a good friend, Corais," she said. "You always know how to get me out of one of my moods."

But as they started toward to the practice field, Polillo said: "Why don't you talk to your brother, Captain? Maybe he can tweak a few Magistrate noses on our behalf."

"I don't like to use my family connections," I replied. "The Guard will have to stand... or fall... on its own."

Polillo frowned, but Corais pulled her away. I finished dressing in solitude. I'd just enough time to make it to Amalric's villa for the rites honoring my mother. I wore my ceremonial uniform: gleaming boots, a short white tunic, polished harness bearing my sword and dagger, a golden, waist-length cloak, a half-a-dozen slender gold rings on each wrist; and to top the outfit off, a wide, gold band encircled my head. I sprinkled on some orange blossom scent and got out my favorite earrings. They were also of gold: in the left ear I pinned a jeweled, miniature spear - fashioned after the one our Goddess carried; in the other, a replica of Maranonia's torch - bejeweled as well.

I made one final check in the mirror. As I stared into it, I found myself fingering the dangling torch - the symbol for our Goddess's vigilant search for wisdom. Perhaps Polillo was right. Maybe I was letting my pride stand in the way of the honor my Guard deserved.

Very well, then, I decided - I'd talk to Amalric. If anyone could kick those Magistrates' fat asses into motion, it was my youngest brother.

* * *

The city was in the grips of war fever as I rode through it. Although war had not been officially declared, there was no mistaking that hot emotion had already outreached ceremony. At the Evocators' Palace on the hill, black smoke boiled from the chimneys of the conference rooms where our Magistrates huddled with the Evocators for wizardly advice. In the streets, people were buying goods at the market stalls at a furious pace - loading wagons and sacks with whatever they feared might soon be scarce. Young bravos dashed through the streets on horse and afoot, shouting war slogans and making silly boasts about what they intended to do when they met the enemy on the field. Pretty maids were ogling the boys from windows and doorways, and I didn't doubt they'd be slipping off to meet them before the day was through. Taverns were doing a booming trade, as were the witches' booths at the market, where many a crone was tossing bones, or peering into bloody animal organs for signs of what the future held. The armorers' shops were a racket of hammers against metal, and I knew that deep in the bowels of Evocators' Palace, the spell casters were hard at work coming up with the latest in magical weapons. Why our superiors were still talking, instead of doing, was beyond me.

Like most soldiers, I am a fatalist - what will be, will be. I don't like politicians much because they tend to obscure the intentions of the fates. They rail on as if there really were choices, when it would be better to keep your peace, and study what was sure to come. Show me a mountain pass, with a thing of value at the end of it, and I promise you that by and by troops with greedy intentions will march along that path. Point out a good ambush site - no matter how empty the wilderness - and I'll give you a drunken corporal's odds that if blood hasn't already been spilled at that site, it's only a matter of time before it will.

In my mind the facts of the matter were the Lycanthians were our natural enemies and should be quickly dispatched to the afterlife. We were as different as day and night. Orissa is a merchant city, filled with life, laughter, and a love of the arts. We're a river people, and like all river folk we're dreamers. We see the worth of hard labor against a stiff current to achieve a thing, because we know how easy it'll soon be to lie back and bask in the sun and let that same current carry us swiftly home.

Lycanth, on the other hand, was a creature born on a hard coast from an unruly sea. Its citizens trusted no one and coveted all. They lived willingly under the yoke of two Archons, whose every word - no matter how evil - was strict law. The Lycanthians were dreamers as well, but they dreamed of conquests as they stirred in their sleep on that rocky coast. They dreamed of a vast kingdom, made up of our lands and beyond, where we would work as their happy slaves.

Over the years we'd fought Lycanth many times - our talent as soldiers barely winning the day over their skills as seafaring warriors and willingness to accept the most appalling casualties in massed frontal charges. The last time we'd nearly hammered them into oblivion, but held back from a final obliterating blow. You may think that was wise, agreeing with the politicians who said a weakened Lycanth was better than no Lycanth at all; their presence kept other enemies from our borders. You may not be surprised I disagree. My reasons: (1) Their Archons began conspiring against us from the first day of their defeat; (2) Amalric and the late - unlamented by me - Janos Greycloak were stalked and harried at every turn during their expeditions to find the Far Kingdoms; (3) When Amalric and Janos discovered the land we now know as Irayas, they also uncovered a conspiracy by the Archons and Prince Raveline to betray Orissa and Raveline's own brother, the King of Irayas.

Is that enough for you? This bloodless thing who poses as my Scribe says no matter what the outcome, the original decision was humane, and therefore correct. Let me continue to number the facts that make up my case: (4) My brother returned from the Far Kingdoms with not only rich trading contracts, but tremendous magical knowledge which King Domas had agreed to share with us; (5) The Archons of Lycanth were immediately seized with envy and especially fear that with this new knowledge they would soon lose all hope of fulfilling their dreams of rising from the ashes to destroy us; (6) They went immediately to work speeding up their secret rearming. Facts (7) and (8) are less debatable, and had happened very recently and at almost the same time.

Secret patrols our leaders had been wise enough to post just beyond Lycanth's limits - near the neck of the peninsula the city was built on - returned with a shocking report: Lycanth's great wall stood again. It'd been built epochs earlier, even before the Lycanthians began their attempts in empire-building, and reinforced over the eons not only by slave work-gangs but by all the protective magics the Archons could cast. Then, during that last war - which my father, Paphos Antero, had fought in - all Orissa's Evocators combined to birth a great spell, and the wall was cast down in a single night. Now the wall stood once more; a barrier that served as mocking proof the Archons had done more than merely conspire with Prince Raveline - some of his black secrets must have been imparted to the Lycanthian rulers as well.

That would've been enough in itself for war, but the Archons - and this is the last of my reasons - broke every peace agreement between the two cities, and sent out their fleet to harry our merchant ships and those of our allies. It was a deliberate act of war, although I prefer to think of it as no more than piracy and the Lycanthians no better than any other bandit clan.

My Scribe is giving me a grudging nod. If that little rodent has conceded defeat, I feel safe in assuming your added agreement. When Lycanth last fell we should've razed their city, dispersed their people to the ends of the earth so the name Lycanth would be meaningless in a generation, and sowed salt in the ground their cursed city had been built on.

Where was I? Oh, yes: the politicians were politicking, the Evocators were wizarding, the lads were boasting, the maids were flirting, and Orissa was girding for war. And I was off to my brother's place to make peace with my dead mother.

The whole family - except Amalric - was gathered before her garden shrine by the time I arrived. It was during the Holy Hour of Silence, so I got some angry looks from my three other brothers and sniffs of superiority from their wives. But they're a mean-spirited lot and easy to ignore. Sometimes I doubt they're truly Anteros, and believe my father must've made them on the cot of some stingy whore. So, when Omyere waved for me to join her, I was grateful to slip through the ranks of brothers, cousins and other chilly kin, to a seat by her side.

Omyere leaned close to whisper: "Amalric is at the Palace. He should return soon."

I nodded - it was no surprise my youngest brother would be at the heart of things. My mind buzzed with arguments I'd put to him later - but soon the silence of the others, and the peaceful scent and color of the garden, let all those busy thoughts slip away.

My mother, Emilie, was a modest woman, who thought decorated shrines and altars were unseemly. I was just entering womanhood when she died, and my father was too grief-stricken to properly tend her needs for the afterlife. Amalric was still a toddler then, and although my other brothers - especially Porcemus, the oldest - were intent on building an elaborate temple-like thing in her honor, I fought fiercely on her behalf and won. Instead of the temple, a simple, stone shrine was set beneath a small rose tree. Instead of an elaborate simulacrum painting of her features - such as the one that graced the shrine to my dead brother, Halab - I demanded the stone remain blank. However, my mother had a love for the sound of gently running water, so I got an Evocator to cast a spell that made a small stream trickle continually down the face of the shrine, to run into a little pool now covered with fallen rose blossoms.

As I looked at the shrine, I felt pride stir from more than twenty years past. It was my first real victory. I'd been a wild child, who loved to run up trees, hurl stones at birds and beat up little boys who called me a girl with sneering lips. Everyone was constantly complaining about the mischief I caused - except my father and mother. My father said I'd grow out of it and would soon be simpering about like any other pretty maid. My mother said nothing either way, but when I was in her company and did something ruffian-like, she only smiled and acted as if it was normal. She encouraged me to learn and made father get me a tutor just like boys of wealthy families. And when I confessed to her one fateful hot night - when we were all alone in her room and the air was thick with mother-daughter secrets - that above all things I wanted to be a soldier, she did not gasp in shock, or weep from imagined failure. Instead she told me there were many things she'd wanted to accomplish in her life, but because of her sex, had never had the chance.

"Oh, why," I mourned in great youthful passion, "were we born women, mother? Why couldn't we have been born men?"

Now, she expressed shock. "That's not what I meant," she said. "I've never wished to grow a man's parts. As far as I've been able to see, a penis does nothing but weaken the brain. No, my dear, don't pray to be a man. Only pray to have the same freedoms as men, and if you get it, you will be content. I'll tell you a secret. I think someday our time will come, and when it does, women are much more capable of looking after the world than any man I've ever met."

"I can't wait that long," I cried. "I'll be old, and they don't let old people be soldiers."

My mother looked at me for long time, then nodded. "If that's what you want," she said, "then that's what you shall be."

A week later my father hired a retired sergeant to teach me to fight. He never said a word to me about it, but only smiled when I complained of bruises after a hard day of getting drubbed by a wooden sword. A year later, that smile cut from ear to ear as I'd bested the sergeant in every skill, and he had to trade him for someone more adept. By the time my mother died I was better than any youth in the city - or, at least those willing to test themselves against a warrior girl. I was a young woman of sixteen when I entered the Maranon Guard. I've never looked back.

The sweet strings of a lyre coaxed me out of my reverie. It was Omyere - who'd left my side unnoticed - and was now sitting on a stool by the shrine playing that wonderful instrument of hers. She looked at me across the others as she played, and began to sing a gentle song I knew was meant for me. I saw the soft fall of her red hair - as bright red as Amalric's - and thought my brother a lucky man to find such a woman. I had a lover once, I thought, who'd touched me like Omyere must touch my brother. Not Tries - but Otara, she of the throaty laugh, soft arms, and fingers that could stroke the demons from my head. She was my lover for many years before she died and I suppose in many ways she'd replaced my mother.

Forgive me, if I weep, Scribe. But do not smirk, as if to say that is the nature of a woman. If you dare do such a thing - or even think it - I'll forget my vow and you'll not leave this room to smirk at another. Otara is close to my heart, and when I swore I'd speak only the truth, I knew very well I'd have to reveal things that are against my nature to uncover. There may be more weeping before this book is done - so beware, lest some of the tears that fall become yours. Now, let me wipe my eyes and gather my thoughts...

As Omyere sang, I mourned Otara - just as she'd meant. The song changed and I felt cleansed. The lyre took up a playful tune. It made me think of my mother's laugh and I reflexively looked at the shrine. I watched the water running along the moss that clung to the stone and imagined the shape formed by moss, water and rose petal shadows to be my mother's face. It seemed to come alive and I saw her eyes open and her lips move. There was the heady scent of sandalwood - my mother's favorite perfume. I felt a warm hand touch my neck and thought I heard a whisper - my mother's voice. It was so low I couldn't make out what she said, but I knew if I listened closer I could hear quite easily. I think I became afraid... Actually, I'm sure of it, for I suddenly thought - this is nonsense. It's the hangover still at work. Your mother was an ordinary mortal, like yourself. Certainly not the kind to play at ghosts. I snatched my head back, and the whisper broke off. The scent was gone and when I looked at the shrine, so was the face. Omyere had stopped playing. I saw her frown, and shake her head. I felt like I'd missed something very important - and the loss was painful.

Then all thoughts of loss, lovers and ghosts vanished in a thundering of hooves outside the villa walls. Amalric was back from the Evocators' Palace.

* * *

He'd returned with news that war had been declared. The remainder of my mother's feast day collapsed in a babble of fright and excitement. Every citizen of Orissa was expected to gather at the Great Amphitheater that night to hear the public announcement, undoubtedly to be accompanied by various morale-boosting displays.

My brother soothed everyone as best he could and tried to keep his temper as they deluged him with stupid questions: how long did he think the war would last; what kind of financial suffering did the family face; what goods did he think would become scarce, so they could begin their hoarding now with an eye to black-marketeering in the future. Although Amalric is the youngest of my father's children, he's the unquestioned head of family. My father had wisely passed over my other brothers - all as weak and lazy as they were foolish - to bequeath his merchant empire to Amalric. Obviously, a lot of jealousy and hard feelings were stirred up, but my brother's force of personality, plus his fame as the discoverer of the Far Kingdoms, kept the weasels cowed in their dens. Eventually, he caught my eye and motioned to meet him in his study. Then he shooed them all home with reminders to attend the great meeting.

As I took a seat near his writing desk a few minutes later, I could see from the grim set of his mouth and high color of his skin, there was more news than just the declaration of war.

"What are you hiding, brother, dear?" I asked. "Go ahead... tell me the worst."

He laughed, but the sound was harsh. "I can't ever keep anything from you, can I, big sister?"

"It comes from long practice, my dear," I replied. "Before you became a grown man and such a - dare I say it - responsible sort, I caught you with lizards in your pockets, and a little later, doxies in your bed."

My brother had been so young when our mother died, I'd practically raised him. We'd always been close, sharing secrets we'd never dream of mentioning even to our loved ones.

"So, out with it, Amalric," I said. "Tell your wise sister what those fools at the Palace are in such a panic about."

Amalric made a wry grin. "Even though we have had plenty of notice," he said, "our troops are hardly prepared for a real war." he said.

"That goes without saying," I replied. "Although my women are ready enough. We've doubled our training schedule and have remained on full alert since we heard the first rattlings of Lycanthians swords. I've even, without orders, put extra recruiters out around the girls' lycees and marketplaces, paying their expenses from one of my discretionary funds, for which initiative I could probably be relieved."

My undisguised tone alerted him to my bitter feelings. He gave me an odd look, then moved on.

"Well, the rest of our troops will be doing the same now," he said. "Especially after the Magistrates were done spanking our incompetent commanders."

"They'll be up to the mark, soon enough," I said, grudgingly admitting my brother soldiers were not totally without worth. "Which means that problem will be quickly solved and everyone knows it. So if the Magistrates and Evocators are still shitting their breeches, then the trouble must be reallybig."

Amalric sighed. "It's magical in nature," he said.

"I should have known," I replied. "But they're all panicky fools. Haven't they any faith in their own spells? Or have they been lazing about and ignoring the secrets you brought back from Irayas?"

"Of course not. But the Archons have been hard at work, too," Amalric said. "And it seems they got more dark knowledge from Prince Raveline than we suspected. Our Evocators fear they'll match us spell for spell. Look at that damned wall across the peninsula they restored. One of the Evocators told me no one in the Palace, even Gamelan, could cast a spell like that overnight."

"Who cares?" I scoffed. "In the end, hard steel always decides a fight. So their Archons have worked up some new spells to protect them from our weapons? That'll mean our wizards will find a counterspell, and so on and so forth, until finally it's up to us common soldiers to win the old fashioned way - with blades, axes, clubs and bows. Don't worry. We've always beaten them in the past. Magic isn't going to change anything."

"Normally, I'd agree," Amalric said. "For I learned as much about magic in battle from Janos Greycloak. He might have been a great sorcerer, but he was always a practical-minded warrior first."

He poured himself a goblet of wine. I waved him off when he offered me some and took some cold water instead. "This time, however," he continued, "there are foul tales of some terrible weapon the Archons are working up. I know rumors are more plentiful than beetles in pig swill when war threatens. However, Gamelan reports strange disturbances in the magical ethers, which leads him to lend credence to the whispers."

I was silent. Gamelan was not only the chief Evocator - and our most powerful wizard - but an old man who had seen much and was noted for his cool appraisal. If Gamelan was worried, there was good cause to fear.

"What else?" I asked, for I sensed more bad news. "The Archons are trying to win favor with King Domas," my brother said. "He is a cunning monarch, so I doubt they'll have much success. Unless... they convince him our cause is hopeless. Then he'll do the same any sensible ruler - he'll support the apparent victor."

If that happened, we didn't stand a chance. The Far Kingdoms are superior to us all in the practice of magic. They were our allies, thanks to Amalric. But would they remain so? "We'll just have to face that when it comes," I said, returning to the safety of fatalism. "If it comes at all."

"Preventing it will be my sole labor until the war is over," my brother said. "The Magistrates have ordered me to Irayas. I'm to keep King Domas sweet for the duration." I didn't have to look at his gloomy face to know this was upsetting. He would not only miss the fight, but would be forced to live among strangers for as many years as the war took.

"When do you leave?" I asked.

"In a few days," he said. "As soon as I get my things together and a ship is readied."

Both of us considered what the future might hold. My own thinking was there was little time for my brother to help me in my own task.

"Before you go," I said, "I want you to speak to the Magistrates. Every person is going to be needed for this fight. The Maranon Guard must not be kept home!"

Amalric shook his head. "I already brought the subject up," he said. "And despite all my arguments... it was rejected."

My heart plunged. I was stunned to have lost so quickly. "But, why?" I cried, although - as I said before - I knew the answer.

"The usual reasons," he said. "I listened to their tired old quarrel for hours."

"Let me list them," I said, my temper barely under control: "The gods made women gentle, and it's unnatural for them to be warriors; we aren't strong or hardy enough to take the field; our moods are controlled by our monthlies; we have no reasoning powers, but are victims of casual fancy; male soldiers wouldn't trust us to fight by their sides; or, they'd be too protective, putting their own lives and the mission at risk; we, their daughters, would become whores, since it's a well known fact women have no control over their base natures and will fuck every man in sight; and, if we are captured, the enemy will rape us, demeaning the Manhood of Orissa."

"I don't think you have missed one," my brother said, dry. "The last reason drew the most heated comments."

"Oh, lizard shit!" I said.

"My feelings, exactly," Amalric said. "Although my replies were not so colorful, or to the point. Plus, there is one thing I have not mentioned as yet. General Jinnah will be named to head the expeditionary force. It was he, in fact, who was the most vociferous in opposing the deployment of the Guard."

My anger found new heights. Jinnah as Supreme Commander! That surprised me, but shouldn't have. Jinnah was one of those soldiers a country at peace spawns like a compost heap breeds maggots. They're all of a type: coming from the proper family; educated in the proper lyceums; serving in exactly the right post at exactly the right time as they rise in rank; able to speak well to their superiors; calm yet resolute to politicians; almost always handsome and grave, the very image of what a leader should look like; and never touched by scandal. In time of war, all of these pluses become fatal defects: their families and teachers will not have allowed an original idea or person to cross the threshold for generations; their kow-towing to their overlords proves a mockery since they believe their superiors to be even stupider than they are; in frustration they take out their anger by treating their underlings with arrogance and disdain. Finally they've avoided scandal by never doing anything unless they had to, and only then if there was a culpable subordinate to blame should things go awry. As for their cultured looks - I've never known a handsome face to turn aside a spear thrust.

In short, I felt General Jinnah to be an exact mirror of everything that was wrong with the Orissan army, as it dreamed through the long years of peace.

I'd never run afoul of the man, although once in maneuvers, when we were detailed off as the mock-enemy, I'd sent my Guard into "battle" using irregular tactics that not only "destroyed" his forward elements, but made a shambles of his most-precise, most-absurd timetables. Not that a direct confrontation would have been necessary for him to oppose me thus - Jinnah was well-known as a fanatic foe of anything that smacked of the new or original, not unlike our city fathers.

My anger fled, and I was left with nothing but despair. Tears blurred my vision, although not one fell. I heard Amalric rise, and in a moment he had a comforting arm about me.

"Don't say you're sorry," I snarled. "Or I'll lose whatever dignity I have left."

My warning was unnecessary. Amalric knew me too well to say a word. But I didn't shake off his arm. I badly needed the steadiness of his loving touch.

I thought of that moment in the grove when I saw my mother's face on the shrine, smelled the sandalwood perfume, and heard the indecipherable whisper. Why had I rejected her? Why had I turned away? Because, I chided myself, there was no ghost. You were only being weak - because of the hangover. You imagined it. But a part of me quarreled with that: imagination, or not, it said, for a moment you believed. Whether it was a ghost, or your imagination, you still rejected her. Why? I couldn't say. If there was an answer - it seemed to lie at the bottom of a great, black abyss.

As if reading my thoughts, Amalric said: "Mother would be proud of you, big sister."

"How do you know?" I said, my tone unwarrantedly harsh. "You barely remember her."

Amalric sank down on the thick carpet and leaned against my knee. It was the old, familiar position from long past when he was a little boy and I was the all-wise hero sister. "You've told me enough about her," he said, "so I'm quite sure of it."

I snorted, but I liked his words just the same.

"What was she really like?" he asked - his voice as light as that long ago child's.

"You've heard it all," I said.

"Tell me, again," he pleaded. "Was she beautiful?"

"Very beautiful," I said, remembering her fair skin, wide-deep eyes and slender form.

"Was she gentle and wise?"

"She was the wisest and gentlest of mothers," I answered by rote.

"Tell me how she came to name you, Rali?" my brother asked.

"You've heard that tale as well," I said. But he gave my hand a squeeze and so I told it again, for I could never deny my brother anything he asked.

"In the village of her birth," I said, "there was an old idol by the well. It was the statue of a young girl, a heroine in ancient times. She was found in the wilderness - raised by animals, some say. When she came to the village she had no knowledge of the right or wrong of things, and behaved as her nature moved her. She was as strong as any of the boys and could best them in any physical competition. But she was beautiful as well, so they also lusted after her. The village was scandalized by her behavior and the elders ordered her into exile. Soon after she'd gone, an enemy force attacked. There were so many and they were so fierce, it soon looked as if the village was lost. But out of the night the girl rode in on the shoulders of a great black cat. And there was more than just girl and panther, for every animal with fang and claw came roaring from the forest and fell upon the enemy soldiers. Soon they were saved and the animals - and the girl- vanished. The story goes that whenever there is trouble - overwhelming danger - that girl will return to rescue the villagers. So they put up a statue to remind themselves because someone might be strange, it does not mean they are necessarily evil."

"And then they named her," Amalric said.

"Yes. They named her Rali."

"Why?"

"Because..." and I remembered my mother telling me this story for the very first time. I'd sat on her lap and she'd cuddled me in her arms. I'd asked the same question, she'd told me the same answer I was about to relate.

"Mother said it's an old word... from her village. Rali means hope. And that name came to her the first instant she held me to her breast."

We sat in silence for a long time. Finally, Amalric patted me and rose. "Thanks for the story," he said.

I grinned. "I should be the one doing the thanking, brother dear. Although nothing has changed... your little trick has made me feel better."

Amalric didn't bother denying his intent. Instead, he took my hand, saying: "I'll ask the Magistrates again." I only nodded. But in my breast, I'll admit, there was a small stir of... hope.

* * *

That night the whole city gathered at the Great Amphitheater. Rich were jammed against poor; fishmonger next to fat merchant; market witch beside thin-nosed lady. On the huge platform in the center of the vast arena were our leaders: the Magistrates; Gamelan and his chief Evocators; the military commanders; the merchant princes; and - just to the side, but in a place of honor - my brother, Lord Antero. Spells cast their images large so all could see and made their voices loud so all could hear.

I knew Amalric - as promised - had once again urged the Magistrates to change their minds about the Maranon Guard. He hadn't had time to report their answer, but I knew what the decision was when the runner rushed to our barracks an hour before the meeting. The Council of Magistrates was kindly asking us to serve a special role that night. Fifty of us were asked to serve as the honor guard. To symbolize our important role as Orissa's Protectors, we were to bring our idol of Maranonia, and special prayers would be made to her as well as rich sacrifices.

In other words, they'd said no, and were throwing us a bone to bolster our pride.

I didn't breathe a word of this to my soldiers and as we formed up just inside the amphitheater's big gates - arranging ourselves around the idol - every woman's face shone with pride. Polillo's beam was enough to light the night and Corais was so thrilled she forgot to berate one of the soldiers for a spot on her golden cloak. I myself felt proud of my soldiers, their spirit, their professionalism, their confidence, despite my certainty disappointment was but an hour or so away. I looked at Maranonia's face and whispered my own, private prayer of thanks for being blessed in leading such fine troops. The Goddess made no answer, but I liked to think there was a gleam in her jeweled eyes. She seemed to stand straighter than ever before - torch outstretched, golden spear raised high.

I lowered my eyes as Gamelan advanced to the center of the stage to ask our Gods to bless the meeting. He was a tall, scarecrow of a figure, with long white locks and beard. He threw up his arms, the sleeves of his black Evocator's cloak falling back to reveal long, bony arms.

"All hail Te-Date," he cried.

"All hail Te-Date," the crowd roared back, hot blood stirring in our veins.

"Oh, Great Lord Te-Date," Gamelan intoned, "your humble people are gathered before you to beg your assistance in this, our greatest hour of need. Evil wizards are conspiring against us. They covet our lands - your lands - and desire to enslave us, your faithful servants. Orissa is in grave danger, oh, Lord Te-Date. Orissa is—"

A terrible howl of fury ripped the night. The clear and star-filled sky was blackened by an immense cloud, with lightning crackling about it. The howl became two great voices - chanting in unison:

Demon come,
Demon eat.
The Trap is closed,
Rats in the nest.
Demon come,
Demon eat!

Not one among the thousands there had to ask who the speakers were. Not a babe, not a maid, or warrior or lord, needed to wonder. It was the Archons of Lycanth, striking the first blow of the war. It might be the final blow as well, for the whole city was trapped in the amphitheater at the mercy of the Archons' sorcery.

There was thunder behind me and I whirled to see the arena's great gates crash open, ripped from their hinges by some huge force. The gates had barely reached the dust, when a gigantic demon came through the opening with a bound. It landed on all fours and turned its head this way and that to measure the size of the Archons' promised feast. The creature seemed half-dog, half-ape. It squatted on thick haunches, a long, grasping tail protruding obscenely. It had sinuous arms with clotted black fur, and sharp, hooked claws. It had the snout of a hunting dog, huge sawed-edged teeth and the small flat ears of an ape. Three blood-red eyes on line across its forehead swiveled to and fro.

Frozen terror turned to panic, the arena filled with awful shrieks and people were running everywhere, nowhere. There was no time for Gamelan and our other Evocators to think of a counterspell, even if one existed against such mighty sorcery. The other leaders on the platform appeared equally paralyzed.

A panicked young woman ran in front of the beast and it roared in glee, scooped her up with its claws and stuffed her screaming into its black maw. Her wriggling body hung on either side of its jaws for a moment... there was a last scream... and she was gone.

Appetite wetted, the demon came for the rest of us.

Without thinking, I drew my sword and shouted a challenge - the wild, ululating battle cry of a Maranon warrior. At the same instant my sisters joined in and our cry shattered the night with its ferocity. We were one voice, one body, and one mind.

The demon swerved and bounded toward us. We charged, prepared to do what the Maranon Guard does when Orissa is at stake - fight, and fight on, until the last of us is dead or the enemy destroyed.

We were berserkers, wild with fury, impervious to pain. We slashed and cut and tore, were hurled away by the beast, only to roll to our feet and come screaming back for more. Then the demon recovered from the surprise of our suicidal assault and in a moment ten of us were gutted and dead and as many more lay moaning in the arena dust, bleeding their last. Polillo, Corais and I regrouped and sped in for another attack. The demon bounded over us, his huge shape twisting in the air and coming around in a single motion as supple as a sea snake. But it misjudged its leap - landing on the idol of Maranonia. Both crashed to the ground, the statue shattering from the violence of the collision. As the demon rose, its back feet skittered in the rubble of our fallen Goddess.

I motioned and Corais arced to the left, coming up behind to try to hamstring the beast, hoping that earthly steel could strike home. Polillo broke right, her battle-ax gleaming in the night. I attacked from the front, while my other warriors swarmed about the monster, taking every opportunity for a blow while the moment lasted.

As I sprinted forward I saw Maranonia's spear lying whole upon the ground. It was made of stone, like the rest of the statue and the gold was only paint. But something made me scoop it up as I ran. Instead of clumsy, too-heavy stone, the Goddess's spear felt as light as a javelin, and as I shifted my grip it found its balance in my fist as if made for it by a master smith.

The demon reached and I let it take me, lifting me up and up. Then it screamed in pain as Corais's blade - the bastard was mortal - slashed. But the pain only made it tighten its hold and it pulled me toward its gaping maw. Its breath was a privy hole of foulness and its three red eyes fixed on me - side-slit pupils narrow with hate. Then it gave another shriek and tried to paw at something clinging to its right shoulder. I hung, suspended, struggling to cast my spear. I saw what the clinging something was - Polillo. She dodged the demon's strike, then leaped forward onto the back of its neck, long strong legs locking. Her ax was gone, but she wouldn't have used it if she'd still had it - Polillo was intent on grappling with the demon, muscle against muscle.

She grabbed those flat ears and strained back. The demon roared and tried to slap her away, but still she kept pulling... and pulling... until the beast's snout was forced upward. It tried to fling me away to free another paw, but I hung on and as its paw reflexed back to begin another shake, I was carried with it.

I heard Polillo bellow for Maranonia to give her more strength and I heard tendons crack with effort and the demon's throat was exposed. I flung myself forward, thrusting with the spear. It sank into soft flesh, going in and in and in. The demon's body rippled with pain, then foul air, mixed with blood, sprayed from the wound.

The demon opened its maw for a final roar, then its whole body folded in on itself and I was leaping away, twisting as the ground rushed up. I landed and rolled as the demon fell, its body narrowly missing mine as it crashed onto the floor of the arena.

I grabbed someone's sword and ran to finish it off. But there was no need - the body was quite still. The demon lay dead, with our Goddess's spear buried in its throat.

I turned in a daze, then laughed as first Polillo, then Corais engulfed me in their embrace. I heard my other sisters shouting with joy and they all crowded about us, hugging and cheering and, yes, crying.

We were heroes that night. And the next. And the next. Another legend was enshrined in the history of the Maranon Guard.

But while the city celebrated the first victory over the Archons, we buried our dead, tended our wounded, and mended the tools of our trade. It's good to be praised and admired. But any warrior who thinks the cheers of a grateful and worshipping public will stick longer than a too early snow-fall, is for a sad and bitter reckoning.

On the fourth day, Amalric sent a message, asking me to meet him at the main port. I hurried to the docks, knowing he was about to leave for Irayas and his mission with King Domas.

The ship was in its final loading stages when I arrived and I found Amalric pacing back and forth on the dock. As soon as he spotted me he shouted like a boy and ran to hug me. We clung together - brother and sister - for a long moment, then drew apart for the farewell. But instead of a sad frown, his smile was as white as any glad smile of greetings.

"I have good news for you, big sister."

I waited. Rali means hope, I thought. Rali means hope.

And Amalric said: "The Magistrates have had a change a heart. And since I have a special interest, I wanted to tell you before the official announcement. You have won. The Maranon Guard will march out with others."

I laughed. He hugged me again.

Then: "That was quite a thing you did the other night."

I shrugged. "I had help. Besides, that was just a skirmish."

"Then I won't bother lying and claim it will get easier as it goes," he said.

"Did it ever get easier," I asked, "when you and Janos went after the Far Kingdoms?"

"No," Amalric said. "There was always another, bigger hill to climb; horde to dodge; and desert to cross. I learned it never gets easier. In fact, it gets harder, but you just keep going... until it's done."

"I hope more people than you and I know that," I said. "A few might," he said. "Some of the Evocators, in fact, thought the demon was the Archons' rumored secret weapon. They were ecstatic you'd destroyed it. But Gamelan set them straight. It was powerful magic, he said. But—"

"It was just a demon," I broke in.

"Yes," Amalric said. "It was just a demon."

The ship's bell rang a warning. We embraced and kissed a final time. Amalric boarded and the crew cast off. I stood on the dock until the ship tacked at the bend in the river and sailed out of sight. The last thing I saw was Amalric's scarlet hair, blazing in the sunlight.

And it was many a year before I saw my brother again.

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Last Revised: January 29, 2011