The war front; Alzairan camp
Elise, aged fifteen, was unapologetically immersed in her cup. There was a nasty cut on her side, and their medic had done a shoddy job of binding it. No doubt it’d still be aching come morning, when the fighting would commence once again. She half-hoped their commander would send in the Ligarks and just get the battle over with.
The fire popped as two familiar young women sat on either side of her. Narya and Coliss lounged in their chairs, smudged paint unwashed from their faces. Elise didn’t bother to tell them they weren’t in the middle of a fight anymore; the air was rich with anticipation. Their two armies had been picking off each other in small groups, testing each other’s strength. When the next skirmish would come, or when the big battle would finally begin, wasn’t being shared around camp. War paint always felt necessary.
Narya snatched the bottle from Elise, and drank straight from its mouth. Coliss protested, and there was a brief scuffle over the bottle of siaris. Unsurprisingly, Coliss claimed victory. She smirked at Narya, and drank. Coliss’s smile grew dark. “I think I killed at least fifteen Garizal rabbits. We swept in and they didn’t even know what hit ’em.”
“Liar,” Elise said, demanding the bottle back. Coliss handed it over reluctantly, and Elise refilled her cup. “They pulled out little over fifty women for the engagement. You hardly could have taken on a quarter of their women yourself.” She gave the bottle back to Narya.
The onyx-haired girl frowned. She didn’t move to take a drink, and Elise waited idly for Coliss to take advantage of it. “I’ve heard talk from the warriors that it’s likely the Garizals will have to fall back soon.”
“I’m surprised they haven’t yet.” Coliss puffed out her chest, and Elise was half-tempted to deflate it with a well-aimed finger jab.
In truth, Elise had managed to overhear a few Ligarks theorizing around the fire the other night. Their lion banners had been on the war path when they’d come to these hills and found their way blocked by a Garizal eagle. The Ligarks said the king of Garizal had asked his border lords to hold the line until a proper army could be brought to defend their turf. The only reason the Alizairan camp hadn’t loosed what they had at the enemy was because their enemy had the high ground.
“They’re defending their land, same as we would do,” she said finally. “Though, to be fair, the warriors said on the road here that the Garizal people had no backbone and would be quick to run.”
“Nothing worse than being promised an easy battle and getting a real fight,” Coliss agreed.
Narya snorted. “Maybe, though it’d be a good story to tell my children some day.”
Elise and Coliss laughed, and Narya joined in shortly after. They each took a drink. Elise was the last, and had the bottle to her lips when a woman’s silhouette came into view. The young girl tensed, free hand flying to the weapons at her side, and her friends quickly did the same.
They all breathed easier when the flickering fire revealed a friendly face. They all jumped to their feet out of respect for the warrior. Elise’s mother, named Arina, stood silently before them, one hand on her hip. The older woman, hair already streaking silver, had plenty of scars from her time in war. Her dominant hand was missing a finger, and Elise had been told too many times to count that rather than let the army send her home, Arina became determined to learn how to fight in a way that a missing finger wouldn’t slow her down.
The older woman still would never be a Ligark, and Elise half wondered what the point was of sticking around if her mother knew she’d never make it very far in the ranks.
“That better not be alcohol, Elise.”
The young woman shook her head, showing her mother the cup even though Arina couldn’t see its contents. “Just siaris.” It barely had enough alcohol in it to get a cat drunk, and it’d take more drinking than Elise felt like doing to drown the night away. Siaris just calmed their nerves.
Arina let it go. The tension and disapproval disappeared from her shoulders, and Elise saw the caring figure Arina and the other warriors were careful to keep hidden. “Be on your guard tonight, girls. The moon is full and the sky is clear.”
Right. If the Garizals had any intention of some underhand attack, they’d do it on a night like this, when it was easiest to see by. But Arina’s words were less of a warning and more of a reminder. This wasn’t Elise’s first major battle, but it was the first campaign she was old enough to participate in. Neither she nor her friends could claim even a quarter of the experience that Arina could. Not even a tenth of what the Ligarks had.
Arina’s meaning was clear: War had little respect for honorable conduct.
Elise didn’t ask if they ought to sleep with their weapons close tonight. The three girls always did so anyway.
“Don’t stay up too late,” Arina added, reclaiming her composure. “I expect tomorrow will be a turning point for this battle.”
Arina spun and disappeared into the shadows.
For a long moment, only the chatter of the fire filled the silence. Then Narya sniffed. “Battle. You know, I’d expected joining the Queen’s campaign would mean we’d see enough action to get some stories of our own.” She motioned for the siaris bottle, and was not denied. “The only story I have is how Elise nearly fell into the Ryln river that one time.”
“I did not ‘nearly fall.’ Coliss was horsing around.”
Coliss snorted, but didn’t deny the accusation. “Why are you so obsessed anyway, Narya? It’s not like your war stories are going to get you anywhere.”
“She’s got a point. It’s not the stories that earned the Ligarks their title. They’re just things that come along with the territory.”
Narya shrugged, passing the bottle to Coliss. “On the rare occasion my mother came home from the war, she’d always have these fantastic stories to tell. Don’t you want to collect stories so you can tell your own daughters?”
Elise couldn’t hold back a bark of laughter. “No, I want to collect stories to prove that I’m brave, so that when I gain the warrior rank, my fellow comrades can feel safe knowing I’m at their side. Children have nothing to do with it. Our parents had daughters to people Alzair’s great army. We’ll have daughters to do the same. You can’t tell me you are thinking of wasting your talents by focusing too heavily on raising children. It’s just not right.”
Narya didn’t speak but, to her surprise, neither did Coliss. Elise snapped her fingers at the dark-haired Coliss, but the other girl was too busy looking at Narya to notice.
Narya herself inspected her fingernails, obviously uncomfortable in the spotlight. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help raise your children.”
“That’s man’s work, Narya!”
Narya jumped to her feet, eyes aflame. “And if he ruins the child I pushed out of me, then what? If he makes her too weak or afraid, then what will you say?”
“We were all raised by our fathers, Narya. We all turned out well enough.”
Narya threw her shoulders back. “Not all.”
That was when the alarm started, and all hell broke loose. The sky had turned an orange color at some point without any of the girls noticing. And with the alarm came the smell of smoke. The fire was on the other side of the camp, certainly.
“Those cowardly Garizals!” Coliss snarled, the whisper of sword against sheath acting as poetic undertones to the call of war.
Then another sound rose up to compete with the alarm. Shouting, the ringing of metal on metal — the sound of war, on the vanguard’s side of camp. Their side. “Good Goddess,” Elise breathed. There was cowardice, and then there was Garizal cowardice. “The fire’s just a distraction.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” Whatever oddness had gotten into Narya’s head was gone now in the face of danger.
Other Upper Vanguards were on the move, running through with their weapon of choice already drawn. The trio wasted no time in following them. Elise took the lead, with Narya and Coliss on her heels.
There were no eagle banners used to announce the coming of the Garizal’s forces, but as the fray came into view, Elise noted the sigil of their breastplates. She only had one determined thought before entering the fight: Birds have no place picking fights with cats. And she was determined to prove it with the ferocity of their most seasoned warriors.
The battle was fierce, but before the sun had risen the Garizals were routing and Alizair troops were chasing them down. Eventually, as the sky turned a surly pink, Elise stumbled back into camp, tired out of her mind. Her chest was heaving and her older wound stung just as much as her new ones were.
But walking through the camp, perhaps what weighed heaviest was her heart. She stumbled through the charred remains of officer tents, giving berth to their dead. She didn’t look at the soldiers surrounding her. None of them were her friends. They’d gotten separated at some point in the battle. She hadn’t seen them since.
In the center of camp, everyone began to group according to rank. The Lower Vanguard, the Archers, the Infantry, the Ligarks, the Knights… all slipped around her. As she went around the Archers, Elise caught sight of her mother. She allowed a small smile of relief as she went past and on to the Upper Vanguard.
Goddess must have been smiling down on her, because Arina wasn’t the only member of her family to survive. Onyx-haired Narya and dark-haired Coliss stood immersed in the crowd, but among the Upper Vanguard, they stood out. Perhaps it was only because Elise was searching for them.
When they met, the three of them clapped arms around each other in a brief embrace.
And then the Princess forced her way through the crowd on her massive courser. Her armor was dented and splattered with blood, but she looked unaffected. Her amber eyes glinted in the rising sun. “The Lion roared tonight with a ferocity that will shake Garizal boots for years to come. Tonight they betrayed their desperation. They know Goddess shines down upon us and our righteous cause. I have conferred with my generals. The time to strike is now. Claim this land for your Queen.”
The soldiers roared back their approval.
And though Elise felt exhaustion tugging at her bones, she hefted her sword once more for her Princess, and fell into battle formation.