By the Bluedragon
Ancient legend tells that ten or eleven generations ago, our families faced extinction. Slavers to our north and conquerors to the west almost caused our destruction. We fled as a people from our homeland. Our city and civilization burned to rubble. The fortunate few who survived took only what little they could carry. All else was lost to the ravages of war and the winds of time.
The priest and shamans searched diligently and desperately for a way to salvage our tribe. The gods responded in ways none could have predicted. The new Decrees were set down and made universal. No questions were asked. Questions and complaints would have driven the favor of the gods from us. We depended on them then, as we depend on them now, for our survival.
We shall not be overtaken.
The First Decree of the Refugees as it became termed assured our forefathers that the land does not make the people and that the gods would provide for our continued prosperity. For two seasons what remained of our tribe wandered the orb in search of a place to call our own. Weary with travel, their scouts finally reported a large area; leagues of land clear of occupants. It was mostly flat save for a few rises of earth twice again as tall as the largest of our houses to break the horizon. We irrigated, built homes, farms, schools, and defenses and made it ours. The First Decree was a success. We flourished and soon grew again to our former numbers. Our culture was changed, but we adapted. We had no choice.
We shall not be overtaken.
The Second Decree brought forth a measure of protection. No longer would the gods allow us to isolate ourselves from our neighbors and hide behind battlements, nor did they wish us to shelter all together. Armies were formed, treaties were signed and families were splintered. What was one tribe, one city, became a nation of villages. Settlements were built leagues from one another. We became a nation instead of a city, traders, breeders and merchants as well as farmers. A nation of targets divided armies. Divided armies could be easily defeated. Strong neighbors under peace treaties made us less targets, and more of a force to be reckoned with. So went the reasoning of the priest who delivered the Second Decree.
We shall not be overtaken.
The Third and final Decree was met with a measure of resistance. Solisiric, in her infinite wisdom, challenged tradition by declaring maidens could bear steel. That ancient council, despite her promised wrath, tempered this decree. From that time, all children were taught the sword at an early age. The men of our tribe already played at war, but Solisiric demanded all of her people to defend themselves. Girls now learn the art of steel with their brothers and cousins. It is the choice of the girl's father as to her future, which has not changed; however, the options are more than a suitable husband. The fortunate few are allowed to become kirgeurs.
At the age of seven, all children learn the simpler arts of war with their other schooling. At the age of twelve, the male children are apprenticed, schooled as soldiers, or granted land from their fathers to be held in trust. Female children receive either steel or silk for the twelfth anniversary of their first breath. Very few receive steel.
We shall not be overtaken.
It surprised none who knew me that my father, proud of his oldest daughter and my mother's eldest child, gifted me with steel that day. Like my mother and grandmother before me, I was destined to be a kirgeur, a female warrior and instructor. It was a decision I gladly embraced. Only kirgeurs had rank equal to our men. Only kirgeurs, regardless of their cloth, could inherit or own land. Solisiric desired her warriors to depend on her and themselves only. The kirgeurs were accepted, but young girls were not encouraged to add to our ranks despite the Third Decree.
Since the inception of a new class, kirgeurs have fought along side the male soldiers. Often the best would lead small armies or raids, but most stayed shoulder to shoulder with their fathers, brothers, and sons. Sex no longer had meaning on the field of war. Like the winged beast of fire they were named for, the first kirgeurs were violently victorious. Their brilliance at battle outshone their gender. They were accepted as equals, but still girls were not encouraged to join those honored ranks. Those first few blazed a trail for others behind them. Without them, we would be but a page in history.
We shall not be overtaken.
On the eve of my fourteenth year, I was sent to study with Kayla, my mother's sister. It is the way of the kirgeurs to learn one from another. It is the way of our people to learn at the feet of our elders and hold that knowledge in trust for those who come after. It is the way we survive.
For five long summers and five longer winters, I learned the art of my calling at Kayla's school. My mother's sister was an enlightened kirgeur. She could read and write in more than just the tongue of our tribe. She taught me all of the languages she knew. She could dance with boneless beauty, compose the most eloquent of speeches, and discuss several forms of philosophical thought. Those lessons were hammered into me. I was taught art, poetry, literature, music, the history of all the surrounding peoples and combat with and without weaponry. I excelled at combat.
We shall not be overtaken.
As I grew older, the lessons grew harder. Once a language was learned so well I spoke it in the realm of dreams, I was taught another. Lest I or one of the other girls forget the previous, we spoke them all. Our native tongue was spoken only in the village. We were rarely allowed in the village.
I learned the ways of the sword, the bow, the daggers, the horse and the fist. I had learned the art of training and riding horses from my kin, but it was not for war. These lessons were all for combat. We were taught more domestic things, healing, sewing for patching armor and repairing leather, tanning leather to make armor, and the art of cooking for survival. Most of us would never survive for long on our cooking skills. Regardless, we were taught to hunt, to track, to cleanse and to prepare whatever beast had fallen to our skills. Nothing was ever wasted.
We were in turn ambushed singly or in groups. This was to drive home our lessons in weaponry. I was attacked several times by Kayla, Chelstea, and the other instructors in groups or not. With varying but growing degrees of skill I literally survived each encounter. Sometimes I was "killed" quickly in the attack, dying with various levels of humor and humility. Those times were bad, but the times I "lived" were worse. Lessons would be harder lest I grew complacent. It was a hard school but fair.
Like most kirgeurs, I learned an instrument. Unlike most instructors, Kayla made us learn several. She was a thorough taskmaster. As a result, we were taught the art of passion, in spite of our personal desires. A good kirgeur was taught that a battle could be won on any front. A bedroom assault posed as a lover was just as effective as a well-placed arrow on the field of war. That was the hardest lesson I learned.
We shall not be overtaken.
It was on the third anniversary of my arrival at the school when I learned the true art of passion. Kayla had one of the village "girls" teach those of us old enough to learn and with the desire to do so. It was a lesson I enjoyed. It was one I excelled at, for I practiced the art whenever I had the opportunity to do so. My mother's sister found this amusing. Traditionally, most kirgeurs are cylinge, they prefer their own as the best shamans often do. In this I was no different. It was already well known that I would never marry before I left the village. It was part of my father's reasoning when he gifted me with steel. Outside the circle of kirgeurs or shamans, life is not easy for the cylingic members of our tribe.
Others at the school shared my preferences. We were divided by skill, not age. I took several classes in history, language and literature with girls near my years. I took weaponry and other lessons of war with those who had been there longer than I. We were only allowed to leave when we were proficient enough to please all of our instructors in all our tasks. Only then were we tested and given our brand and our colored cloth. Red was reserved for the healer, blue for the huntress, green for the priestess, black for the assassin, and white for the scholar. All are warriors, but blue is awarded to most. I was gifted with the rare black tunic and the honor of being the second in my family to wear it. Kayla was the first. It was a high honor with a heavy responsibility. No kirgeur balks at duty.
We shall not be overtaken.
I was allowed to return home five years after I had arrived. Those who started with me were required to stay at the most another two seasons. In truth, my last two seasons there had been spent teaching younger girls the art of the sword. That was my last time to see most of them. I learned more that summer and winter than I had in my other years there. It is not easy to teach.
I returned home older in years, wiser in theory and practiced in mock battles. I returned to my village welcomed and missed to find that life had not changed though my friends and family had. My father's first wife had moved her mother into the room I shared with my sisters. My youngest sister, a babe when I had left, was eager to follow my example. She had just started her training with the sword. The sister under me in years was beginning her betrothal. My eldest brother was married and had babes of his own. My childhood friend and companion was betrothed to another of my brothers. I was sickened at the thought of my brother's fortune and her betrayal.
For days after my return, I showed off my mark, the permanent reminder of my status in life. The great kirgeur holding the sun burned into my arm was exactly as my mother's had been. It was an emblem that was hard to miss in battle clothes. I was immensely proud of it. To keep my true calling hidden as required, I wore the common blue of the kirgeur huntress. Those granted the black are forbidden to tell of it until needed. Regardless of the color of my tunic, I was respected as a trained warrior. Only my mother knew my true calling, as she knew of her sister's also. She was proud but apprehensive. However, she encouraged my continued practice and training.
We shall not be overtaken.
Sadly, all life does not stay theoretical. Shortly after my return, I was asked to join the war council. It was a great honor. Kayla had reported my progress favorably. My father was proud of me though I was untested. I was shortly about to get real experience. This is that story.
We shall not be overtaken.
A season after I received my brand, we had word that slavers were in the area. The council decided to meet them in open combat. We had the advantage in that we knew the area. Our outriders had informed us that the slaver army was amassing not far from the outlying territories we claimed for our own. We rode out at dawn to meet them.
I knelt down in the dusty sand. The scorching wind was blowing it in our faces,
and all of us wanted nothing more than an inch of shade. Sweat and dirt was
running down my leather brigand, my pants were sticking to places unknown. Even
my boots felt heavy with more than leather. The sword at my side felt like stone,
weighing me down more than my heart. My stomach felt as if I had eaten rocks
at the morning meal.
The sun was boiling us where we stood or sat. The oldsters kept gazing around looking for the enemy, while those of us uninitiated soldiers tried to make light of our nervousness. Even the horses had picked up on the general air of anxiety surrounding us.
After rubbing sand in my palms, I hastened to reassure my horse. Today would be her first battle as well. I kept wondering if I would ever see my home again, my family, my mother and sisters. My father and eldest brothers were already here. They were keeping watch on the small rise behind me.
I offered my thoughts in prayer. I prayed to every god I knew. I double-checked my equipment, making sure all was securely tied. I did light sword exercises to loosen my wrist and help calm the anxiety I was feeling. I triple checked the fastenings on my saddle, making sure I would not fall off easily if the beast panicked.
"It is time." My father laid his hand on my shoulder. "Prepare for the attack. Good luck, my child."
"My gratitude, father." I bowed my head in a gesture of respect.
"May the gods bless your steel, Tor." He gave me the traditional blessing of warriors.
"And yours, father." I watched him turn and mount his horse. He looked regal in the bright sun.
I mounted my own steed. She was a gift from my father several seasons ago. A messenger had brought her to me while I was studying at Kayla's school. We had trained for four seasons together. The motions I made were familiar, and calmed both our nerves. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend this was another lesson. I chanted our motto to myself to ease the transition from untried youngster to fully-fledged kirgeur.
We shall not be overtaken.
The slaver army advanced and we were there to meet them. They greatly out numbered us, but we held firm. The ringing of steel and the smell of blood and sweat filled the air. As the lines met and clashed, I lost my anxiety. I lost everything but what Kayla called the battle sense. The innate instinct to kill and avoid death flooded my veins. I was an observer inside my own skin. My body reacted without conscious direction. My horse and I were one as we cut a path through the enemy.
I saw my eldest brother fall from his horse, but did not stop to check on him. A slaver was heading toward me. He met his death quickly at my sword. His body landed at my horse's hooves as his head landed on his commander. It was a gruesome death, but almost painless. Perhaps it was more than he deserved, perhaps less. I had no time to contemplate it.
I lost track of everyone as I let the battle sense consume me. I could not distinguish the beating of my heart from the beating of my horse's hooves. The enemy met and fell beneath my sword. I ran out of victims before I ran out of energy.
I heard a horn sound in the distance. The remaining slavers broke off battle and headed back the way they came. I was relieved to see that only a small fraction of them were left to retreat. The field was ours.
My father's horn called us back to the hill. There were fewer of us by far than when we started that morning. I recognized several men I knew laying on the ground. One of them was my brother, Luiciak. His betrothed would be heartbroken, but I could not find it in myself to grieve at the moment. There were wounded to attend to.
With a quiet sense of victory, we used blankets and saplings as stretchers. The shaman who had come with us saved a few from Necimius's arms that afternoon. One of those was my eldest brother, Jaridic. His wife would be pleased. Life is hard on widows.
We carried our dead and our wounded back to the village. We were unprepared for what awaited us. Our village lay in smoking ruins.
We had been overtaken.
The survivors, those few who were coherent, told us of the double-edged attack. While we were fighting what we thought was the army, another army of the slavers had attacked the village. They had chosen their prey with care. Missing were the girls of an age for training, unmarried women of the attractive look, and those who could fetch a handsome price.
The slavers had ridden through the village, setting fire to all in their path. Men, women and mere babes were slashed by swords or shoved aside by horses. Several women and girls were herded into wagons like horses into a paddock. Archers rained arrows of fire upon the village. The guards had not a chance to assemble before it was over. There had been no escape available.
Those who we had left as guards were killed. The priest and shamans who had remained behind were wounded. We lost several wounded amidst the ruins of burnt out houses. Among the missing were Luiciak's betrothed, Kierian, three of my sisters and several cousins. We almost lost my father when he was able to see the husk of our house. We found my mother's remains. She had died trying to rally the villagers against the slavers. It was an honorable death for a true kirgeur. The thought did not appease the grief I had no time to feel.
My heart was too sore to grieve had I the time. All I could let myself feel was righteous anger. There were not many of us left in a condition to follow. The slavers had been thorough in the execution of their plan. It was a sickening sight. The energy the battle sense provided was near to exhausted. All were ready to fall where we stood. There was no time for such a luxury.
Fully one fourth of our village had been taken. Half of it was wounded, and another quarter was dead. All told, only four of us were untouched by the slightest wound. I was the least affected. I had no wife or children to grieve, though the loss of my mother, friends and sisters tore at my heart. My father was too heart sore to do more than rail at the gods. Several people joined him.
We tended to our wounded and put out what fires we could. The wreckage awed me. We would be seasons recovering from this without outside help. One of the mildly wounded young men was sent to the nearest village for aid. I was doubtful of the outcome. None would arrive in time to find the slavers and rescue our missing.
Regardless of my doubts and ideas, I lent a hand to whatever task needed it. I helped the fire brigade, mixed potions for the shamans and helped set up temporary shelters. By dusk, I had tired myself so greatly I almost fell asleep midstride. I pulled my bedroll from my saddle and walked the path of dreams beneath the stars.
At the school, we had been trained to rise before dawn. The lesson was so ingrained that I was awake an hour or more before sunrise. Quietly, I found my saddlebags. They were still packed. Another habit Kayla had burned into our minds was to always keep fully packed saddlebags at the ready.
I double-checked the contents. I was lacking food and water, but all else was in readiness. I did not wish to take food from the village. Too much had already been lost, so I made sure I had coinage. Silver was welcomed anywhere. Water could be gathered at the stream in any container I could find. It was, of course, more important than food at the time.
I took two other things before I left the village that morning. The first was my mother's sword. It had been handed down to her from her grandmother. Solisiric herself was said to have blessed it. The second thing I took was my mother's amulet, a hard lump of clay in the image of her chosen goddess. It had been promised to me long ago, and I felt anything that might help my cause would be good to carry.
I dressed that morning in the outfit of the kirgeur. I chose the outfit I had worn at school instead of the finer one my mother had commissioned for me. The black pants, black tunic, bracers and muslin shirt were universally recognized. It was the half sleeved shirt's color that differentiated the skill of the kirgeur. I wore blue for the huntress, instead of the black one in my saddlebags. The sleeves stopped inches before the bracers to show off the mark of the kirgeur.
I left a note for my father and his first wife. It felt strange to write in my own tongue, the words seemed misshapen and unwieldy. Fortunately, my father was highly literate. The note told him all he would need to know. I had gone to track down my sisters.
I saddled my horse and rode out of the village. After making a stop at the stream, I began to track my prey. I followed their trail through the morning, stopping only to rest my horse at midday. I took the opportunity to gather those plants I knew were edible. Those I did not eat were put in my saddlebags for later use.
It was late afternoon when I realized the tracks I had been following split into two groups. I followed the longer but less laden trail. I had no way of knowing how the slavers had divided their goods, but I reasoned the younger girls would be in the train I was following. There was always a call for young girls in the east, and that is where the tracks led.
I followed them at a distance not even their outriders would mark. I was holding to the theory that they would not expect someone after them so soon. Their decimation of our village had been too great. I was planning on using their confidence to my advantage.
At sundown, I stopped my horse and set up a cold camp. It was still too warm for a fire, and I had nothing to cook. I settled on eating the plants I had gathered earlier raw, and let my horse browse for her dinner. The area we were in offered plenty of opportunity for us both.
Knowing the slavers would be most vulnerable when the moon was at its highest, I rested. I fell into a light sleep after making the horse my one and only guard. She would warn me of any danger. She was as battle trained as I.
I woke when a hand touched my shoulder. I had my sword drawn and was on my feet before I was able to ascertain I was in no jeopardy. The horse would have warned me otherwise. She would only allow those she knew to approach me as I walked in dreams.
"Peace, Tor. We are here to help." Chelstea spoke in hushed tones. The night was too still for loud voices.
"What brings you here?" I asked. It was something out of a tale, rescuers for the rescuer.
"We were in the village your boy was sent to for help." She told me. All throughout our training, we had visited various villages. It kept us aware of whom we were to help. Each season Kayla had chosen a different one to assist. I did not think they could have been so close.
"Where is Kayla?" I asked. My mother's sister was nowhere in sight.
"My shehala is tending to the wounded of your village. Her heart is sore at the death of your mother." Chelstea said. Her tone held no recriminations. "We few are here to help. The younger girls with us remained to help the villagers."
"Gladdened am I to see you." I spoke the truth. "The slavers are a league away. They splintered into two groups this afternoon, and I chose to follow this one. I am hoping my sisters are there."
"You show the strength of your training, little sister." Chelstea let her pride show through. "We must now get closer and see what we can do to put this right."
Chelstea set two of the students as guard. They were to protect the camp and go for help if needed. It was a procedure we hoped we would not be required to use. The other four of us, Chelstea, Mir, Sal and I were to be the attackers.
The brush was plentiful but not completely covering. We alternately crouched, slithered and ducked behind what we could find. Three sentries were posted. We were able to silence them all. The more fools them for not believing someone would follow.
We were able to ascertain that the younger girls were in wagons. They were caged in like animals. It raised all our angers to a killing pitch.
We chose a site a little above the encampment. We took turns firing arrows into the rows of sleeping rolls. When the slavers were awakened and organizing themselves to fight back, Chelstea and I left the other two and crept into the encampment.
The arrows kept them confused. That was our advantage. All we had to do was avoid being marked by our own surprise. We managed easily. The slavers were not so fortunate. By the time we were through, there were not many of them left.
Chelstea tied up the survivors as I searched the fallen for keys. The girls were in various states of shock and hysterics. I could not find it in myself to blame them. None of us could.
We piled all the useable items into the area by the fire before we let the girls out of the wagons. We wanted them to calm down a bit; they might have hurt themselves otherwise. Mir and Sal climbed down to assist. The four of us let the girls free and corralled them into groups by the fire. I had not realized just how many female children our village contained until I waded through the throng looking for my sisters.
"Tor." I heard a small voice cry into the darkness right before I felt tiny legs wrap themselves around my waist. "They killed mama."
"I know, El, I know. Are you hurt?" My baby sister was sobbing into my shoulder. I felt her shake her head in negation.
I tried to set her down so I could ascertain if she had been harmed in anyway. Her thin arms were like steel, and as a slippery as a reptile, she avoided my attempts. I held her close as I searched among the others for the rest of my family.
"They are unharmed, physically." Chelstea informed me as she tried to remove El's arms from my neck. El screamed and held me tighter.
"She will be fine, give her a few moments." I informed my instructor. "What are we going to do about the others?" I nodded in the slavers direction. They were still threatening us under their breaths.
"Find out where the others were going, then offer them to Necimius." A kirgeur is often ruthless. Chelstea was no different. "We need to cleanse some of this and feed the girls. We shall stay close by here tonight."
"El, you have to get down. We need to find the others and get you some food." I reasoned with my sister. She slowly released me and slid to the ground. "Stay close though."
She was my shadow as I shifted through the other village children. I managed to locate another sister and four cousins. Kierian, one of my sisters, two of my cousins and several of the older villagers were still missing. They must have been with the other group of slavers.
Mir had retraced our steps to bring the horses and the other two students. They helped us calm the girls. After we got them sorted into a coherent group, we put them to work going through the supplies and making dinner. These slavers were picky eaters; they apparently liked having their comfort foods close at hand. As a result, the village girls were able to put a decent meal together.
As they were looking for the makings of a meal, we questioned the remaining slavers. We were told that they had split into three groups. The women were in one, and several girls were in the other. I had a suspicion that Kierian, my sister and my cousins were in the second group. They were to be presents to the Jilhsaed and his court.
We had every reason to believe the slavers. They were a cowardly lot and believed we would let them live in exchange for information. They believed wrong. The students who had been left at our camp made their first kills that night. There were twenty slavers and six of us. It was over right after it began.
We dragged the bodies of the slavers away from the camp. We burned them as an offering to Necimius. We hoped the god of earth and hell was pleased with our offerings. We stood a better chance of rescuing the others if he were pleased.
That job done, we made the camp ours. We ate then laid down for sleep. We could not return the girls safely in the dark.
Dawn found Chelstea shaking me awake. We went through the slavers' belongings in the light of the sun. Most of it we set aside to send back to the village. The swords we had not claimed, saddles, horses, utensils and jewelry would fetch good prices. It would help in the rebuilding of my village.
We made a plan then, when all of us but the villagers had awakened. Sal and I would continue after the small caravan. Chelstea, Mir and the other two would return to the village with the girls. They would enlist Kayla and the students remaining there before heading out after the larger caravan. Sal and I were encouraged to take what we wanted from the slavers. It was not hard to convince us. If it were useful, it was regulated to our pile of supplies.
We raided their food supplies and packed the edible and usable. Several of the slavers were carrying coinage; we raided as much of that as we felt comfortable and sent the rest to the village. Sal claimed a new sword and a pair of gloves, but I found something better. Since my swords were in excellent condition, and nothing would convince me to part with my mother's, I claimed a few daggers.
I kept a dagger under each bracer, and one on my belt opposite my sword, but I did not have one for my boot. One of the slavers had graciously donated one. I fell in love with it immediately. It was small, from the tip of my longest finger to the middle of my wrist, thin but sharp with a blood groove and curled silver guards. It was perfect.
My sisters were not happy with the arrangement. They did not wish for me to leave them. Although they trusted Chelstea, they knew not her well. It took some doing to make them calm and follow her orders. They had been through enough that separation from me, their sister and rescuer, almost broke their last remaining defenses.
Sal and I watched as those girls who could ride were presented with horses. It had been my idea. I believed it would help them overcome their tragedy if they had something to look after. There were plenty of horses for them all, as most of them were small enough to ride two or even three to a beast.
"Why are you volunteering for this?" I asked Sal as the last of the horses left the encampment.
"I am recently branded. There is nothing else for me at the moment." Sal proudly showed me her mark. I noticed for the first time that she had changed into her uniform. She too wore a blue shirt.
"So, two huntresses on their track then?" I asked. I knew not if I should tell her of my true color.
"What more? Huntresses of men is what we are, is that not truth?" She shrugged at my nod. "Let us ride."
We mounted our horses and retraced the track to catch the trail of the caravan we had chosen to follow. It was a small caravan and we hoped to catch it before it completely left our territory. It would have been easier that way.
Around midday we caught their trail. The slavers had told the truth. They headed south towards the realm of the Jilhsaed. We followed all day. Both of us were too intent in reading the trail to converse. The only noises made were the beats of our horses' hooves and the sounds of our own breathing. The trail was clear. The slavers did not bother to hide it. It indicated they were hurried. That did not bode well for our success.
"It is late, Tor. We need rest." Sal called a halt to our progress. Truthfully, we had not made any time. We were still at the least half a day behind according to the trail.
"Aight." Reluctantly I climbed off my horse. I was stiff from spending so much time on the horse right after two major battles. "Can you cook?"
"Little. We should not be required since we have rations from the slavers."
"Let us not use that. I will kill it if you cook it." I got my bow from its place on my saddle. I had left it strung just in case we had caught up with the slavers. I was not as accurate with the bow on horseback as I was on the ground, but arbitrarily aiming and raining arrows on them from behind would have been effective.
"Agreed." Sal climbed from her horse and began preparing the camp.
I did not go far before I flushed two small brush squirrels. I was able to get both and keep at least one arrow intact. The other broke when the squirrel ran through a shrub. I took both animals back to camp. They would suffice despite their size.
"The gods have provided our meal." I handed Sal the squirrels. "It is still light, we should have browse for us and the horses."
"I agree." Sal took the squirrels and began skinning them. She buried the skins in the dirt several paces from camp. She used branches and set both squirrels above the fire on spits. "I shall rotate those in a few minutes. I have no desire to eat raw squirrel."
"Neither do I." I had stomached too much raw squirrel during my training. "Do you wish to gather for us or for the horses?"
"The horses." Sal gathered both by the reins and moved them closer to browse.
I searched the surrounding area thoroughly. I managed to find several edible plants and roots. I took those and laid them by the fire. The majority were better roasted or at the least parched. Sal returned soon after I finished.
"What is her name?"
"Who?" She had me confused.
"Your horse. She is a lovely animal. I have rarely seen her equal."
"My father breeds horses, she is one of his cross breeding attempts." Growing up, I had helped in the raising and training of the horses when I was not studying. In truth, it was what I planned for my life.
"Does she have a name?" She persisted.
"Kier." I finally told her when it was obvious she would not rest until I had.
"Oh." She reached over and turned the squirrels. "That is Lylien. My father's brother gave her me last season. She is named for my mother. They, my father and mother both, were killed repelling slavers when I was in my fifth season. That, in truth is why I am with you."
"I appreciate the assistance." I moved some of the roots closer to the fire. They were cooking well.
"You rescued two of your sisters and several of your cousins. You are already a hero, why continue?" Sal seemed a talkative warrior.
"I have one sister and two cousins somewhere. I wish them not for slaves." It was all I could say. I could not bring myself to think of the other reason I was following the trail.
"Squirrel?" She handed over one of the spits. We both jumped when several of the roots popped. "I reckon those are finished."
"Sounds as if they are." I agreed.
We ate the squirrels hot. They were cooked through fortunately. The skin crunched at the first bite, but the meat was juicy. It was flavored more by hunger than anything. We had not taken time for much of a meal at midday. We finished the squirrel to the bones, burying the remains for scavengers to unearth.
What roots and plants we did not eat were saved for the next day. We had figured on two more days of trailing the slavers. We hoped they camped regularly. There may have been more of them than we two, but we could move faster. We had no prisoners to slow us. We hoped it would make a difference.
"I shall take first watch." I volunteered. My mind was on the hunt and I knew I would be unable to dream.
"Agreed. Wake me when you are tired." Sal lay down in her bedroll.
We could have set the horses to watch. They were as battle trained as we. However, I was not tired and saw no sense in laying in an useless bedroll. I had too much to think on, but my mind was not on the missing members of my family.
Sal's comments had started my own round of questioning. Rescuing Kierian and the others were someone else's right. I had done my duty by making the first rescue. Had I rescued all my family, I would not have been required to continue the attempt. If Kierian had been the only one missing, I knew by custom it was not my responsibility to rescue her. My brother was dead; her fate should have been left to her family. However, she had been my friend. We had grown up as companions, and almost became more.
I was kirgeur, I was charged with this task. It was my duty. I could not quit. I had to see it through to the end. The question was moot. My sister and my cousins were still missing. I had a duty to my family as well as my village and my heart.
My heart, sore already at the loss of my mother and my brother, could not accept the loss of another. I could not let a friend be sold into slavery, no more than I could let my sisters. Kirgeurs are taught to use logic, and my reasoning was logical. Though I would not admit otherwise.
I watched the moon rise over the plains. The animal chorus was pleasing to my ears, and I let it calm me. It distracted me from my thoughts. As the moon grew larger and closer, I offered my thoughts in prayer to Solisiric. Though my prayers were wordless and scattered, it was my belief the great goddess of the moon heard them. She always heard the devoted.
After my prayers, I shook Sal awake. I waited until she was coherent before allowing her second watch. I noticed she had slept with her sword by her pillow. I followed her example. Not long after I lay down, I was walking in dreams.
Sal shook me awake before sunrise. We packed and took a few moments for nourishment before finding the trail. It was clear and we followed quickly. We were in haste to complete our quest. We knew this land still. We had no great knowledge of land beyond our borders.
"Notice you anything odd about the attack on your village?" Sal broke the silence.
"It was well thought out." I answered. I was too caught up in the chase to give it much thought. I had been awed over the general destruction. I had not noted more than the obvious.
"They did not take any male children. It struck me as odd last night." Sal explained.
I examined the truth of her statement. She was correct. All the male children had been accounted for, including my youngest brother. Even my brother's son, a babe not yet toddling, had been left with his mother.
"It is odd. They must have been looking for women." I responded. "Perhaps the Jilhsaed hired them for a purpose. Kierian and my sister Tre are more than beautiful enough for any prince's harem." Only the wishes of one such as the Jilhsaed could make the destruction of my village logical. He was a man and more. The Jilhsaed was a god to his people.
"It is likely. It is why our village was attacked several seasons ago. I think they took my elder sister for a prince's entertainment." Her voice did not cover her pain.
"Dagthen." I cursed. "This trail leads straight to a village." I had almost forgotten Houcense was the first settlement of others beyond our borders.
"Let us hope we can catch them there or right after." Sal echoed my thoughts. The border of the Jilhsaed's territory was several days hard ride from Houcense.
"Agreed." We hastened our pace to reach the village.
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