This thread is for the serialization of a fantasy novel I'm working on called The Butterfly Sorceress. I have it fully outlined, and a head start so that I can assure everybody there will be a good bunch of updates, and the writing pace lately has been good enough where I should be able to stay ahead of the game.
Updates will be Sunday and Wednesday (usually just after midnight Pacific time). There are 8 chapters in the outline, with 5 parts per chapter, each post will be 1 part. I'll post each part in a new message, with links to each from the first post, and I'll also edit in a link from the previous part so it will be easy to read them all in bunches.
Each summer morning, she watched as the small white creatures fluttered on the whispering breeze. She danced with them across the field behind her home, running and laughing with pure abandon and delight. Still too young for lessons in town like her older brother Tam, she could spend nearly as much time with her little friends as she wished.
Her favorite game was to crawl up behind a resting butterfly until she was near enough to observe every detail on its wings as they folded up and down. She would watch intently as it fed from a wildflower, then she would dare to whisper a question.
"How old are you, Sir Butterfly? I'll be six next month."
He didn't answer. They never did, but at least they didn't immediately fly away either, so she continued her game, continued to ask the many questions that burst forth from her young, inquisitive mind.
One question, however, she asked more than any other as she played with her field of white butterflies. Every time she came close and examined one of her friends, she wondered if she had talked to this one before, since they all looked alike.
"Where are your colors?" she asked, seeking a solution to her dilemma.
It also didn't seem fair that the blossoms they fed from should be brighter and prettier than they were. She could appreciate the beauty of the clouds or of fresh snowfall on the peaks of the northern mountains in the distance, but white all the time was just boring.
Maybe there was something she could do? One day, she went into her parents' workshop -- they made pottery and other ceramic items for the people of Aberley -- and borrowed a small jar of red paint and a brush. Like countless times before, she stealthily moved near to one of the tiny creatures, and dipped the brush into the watery paint.
"Would you like to be red today, Lady Butterfly?"
Belsira eased the brush closer, then lightly dabbed the pigment onto the wings of her friend.
She had been right, the bright red looked beautiful on the little butterfly, but her pleasure lasted only a moment. The poor little thing tried to take off, but instead of floating into the air, it crashed to the ground, beating it's wings to shreds in the dirt. Belsira cupped her hands over it to still its struggles so it wouldn't hurt itself anymore.
Carefully, she pinched its small body between her fingers, then carried it to the workshop. She tried desperately to wash the paint out with water, but she seemed to just make things worse. But it didn't matter after too long, the little butterfly stopped struggling altogether and lay still in her hand. She hardly noticed the tears running down her cheeks as she took it back out to the field and buried the tiny body amidst the swaying wildflowers.
"I'm so very sorry, I didn't mean to hurt anybody. I'll never do it again."
For several days after, she was afraid to approach any of the other butterflies, afraid that they would blame her for the death of their sister and not want to play with her anymore. But when they seemed to take no more notice of her as usual, she felt emboldened enough to crawl up to them once again to observe their habits.
Soon, her crime was nearly forgotten even in her own mind, though she remained careful not to hurt any of her friends. She found it hard, though, to suppress the original curiosity, and eventually ended up asking the same question.
"Where are your colors, little one?"
She knew better than to do more than ask the question, however. She had dozens of other questions to ask as well, even though she still never received an answer. Where did they live at night? Did they each have a name? Did red flowers taste better than yellow?
One day, as she sat, still and quiet in the field, one of the fluttering butterflies came near, then landed on her arm. She stared, enraptured once again by its simple beauty, feeling honored that it chose to trust her so after her previous sin.
"You're beautiful. I still think you'd be even prettier with...," she thought a moment, "with blue wings, though." Belsira, lost in the joy of the moment, pictured her friend looking just so, and within a blink, it was true.
She stared, stunned by the change that had taken place before her eyes, watched the blue wings open and close as the butterfly rested on her arm, apparently unaffected by the transformation. But strangely, she didn't feel any happier for her long sought wish coming true. Even the original pleasure that had come from its alighting on her arm was missing.
Still, she had given her friend its color without hurting it; could she do it again? She neared another, smiled as the joy of its nearness filled her heart.
"Would you like orange wings, Sir?" A moment later, it was true also.
But she still didn't feel any happiness at the deed. She tried again, succeeded.
For the next few days, she tried her trick over an over again. Each time, she brought her happiness to bear on one of her little butterflies, each time, she gave them magnificent new wings, and each time, she felt only emptiness at the accomplishment.
Lost in her obsession, she barely noticed as her mother came out one evening to call her to supper. Belsira noticed a happy blue aura out of the corner of her eye as she crouched near to one of her little friends, trying to decide which color she should make this one.
She chose purple, but sensing a new source of energy nearby, she reached outward instead of inward for the power to affect the transformation. Just like countless times before, the butterfly's wings changed in an instant, but instead of the dull ache of emptiness, her happiness was intact, strong and invigorating.
She laughed, startling her newly purple friend into flight, but she didn't care, she rose up, sprinted after it, giggling and jumping in circles. She had done it! Finally, she noticed her mother standing nearby, arms folded, dark hair tied back for cooking. Belsira ran towards her.
"Mama, mama, did you see?"
She saw, but did not smile, did not react in any way to her laughing, dancing daughter. She stared blankly ahead, observing, but not sharing the experience of Belsira's accomplishment.
Her mother's joy from this moment, stolen to paint the wings of a butterfly, was lost forever.
Pretty, poignant, and beautifully unsettling. I'd like to see more of this.
Normally I do a long critique when I'm reading an unpublished work so that the author has some sort of feedback to work with, but there isn't too much for me to nitpick here.
I like the joy draining magic system, and I think it lends well to the story. I can see it creating a nice bit of character tension later on, but I hope it won't cripple the main character by making her too afraid of hurting people to use magic much. It's always kind of frustrating to read stories that do that.
In any event, keep writing. You're off to a very solid start and this story definitely caught my attention.
__________________ Freelance writer and editor, at your service.
Delightful so far. The whole imagery of painting butterfly wings with magic (and making it seem so important and dramatic, too) is wonderfully poignant and, dare I say it, original? And yes, the joy magic mechanic as well, and the fact that she can use the joy of others offers some interesting potential repercussions...
*Above post: Additional terms and restrictions may apply.
My OotS fanart thread: click here for proof that I have no life. Or, if you're debating with me and need fuel for an ad hominem, click for proof that I AM hopelessly fixated on Vaarsuvius.:)
Spliced!Kyrie avatar by Zanaril. Who else? My Deviantart gallery
Tiny, minuscule nitpick: At this size, this is a novella, not a novel.
Tiny, minuscule nitpick: I don't think you've overused the -ly adverbs, but since they were cushioned in a bed of adjectives ending in -y, I almost made that mistake of sighing, "Why couldn't there have been rich nouns and verbs instead?" It might be worth rewording two or three such words. Not more. (For what it's worth, this problem crops up more in introductions than anywhere else, so get to chapter three or so before looking over all of them. Probably it'll be gone by then and you might not have to reword anything at all.)
As this was a fine and complete moment, I don't know where you're going with the story--but I want to find out!
I want to thank everybody for your very kind remarks, I'm really pleased with the reaction so far.
All comments welcome, though, good or bad, just want to make that clear.
I am going to hold off on any direct replies until the danger of influencing expectations is well past. The story has to speak for itself, and at this point even minor comments, whether they're story related or not, can have a huge influence on how readers approach the next part.
"I've never seen so many people before." From her perch on the wagon’s bench, Belsira gawked at the crowds and wrinkled her nose at the faint stench of the streets.
"There are nearly twenty thousand living in Latham, Bel. Just remember to maintain control and mind yourself. You shouldn't have any trouble." Hylian, Belsira's mentor and guardian these past nine years, never lost a chance to caution Belsira to restrain her talent around others. Of all the things that had changed between them over time, this was no different than when Belsira was eight and freshly charged to Hylian's care.
"I can feel them, but it's such a jumble of different emotions, I don't even know if I could draw on them." Belsira felt a growing unease, vague and undefinable within her mind. Perhaps it was all the curious nervousness directed toward them by the people in the streets. As much as Belsira stared at her surroundings, she was stared at in return.
Of course, with their wagon surrounded by seven royal guards, that was to be expected.
"That's because you have no experience with crowds this large, no practice." Hylian cautioned her. "Don't go trying anything here, though, you'll get more than you'll ever want in the days ahead."
Enough truth to that. When the King's guards had arrived at Hylian's remote cabin with the decree, Belsira could hardly believe it. But Hylian had simply nodded to the captain, then told Bel to pack for a lengthy journey. They had been drafted into the Legion.
Belsira's first reaction was to laugh. She was hardly more than a child, and Hylian was easily old enough to be her grandmother. Why would the Legion want them, what good could they do?
When she remembered their talent, she stopped laughing.
A long week later, they were down from the hills and into the wide plain that was the heart of Mardya. And now she was amid the bustle of people and activities that Belsira had never imagined. As they passed through the market, she saw goods carts, shops, sellers, buyers, rich men and beggars.
The buildings were much more varied and elaborate than she was used to as well. Nearly every one was two or three stories, and they crowded up against the streets so much that Belsira wondered how Hylian could navigate her little wagon through the crowds without running anybody over. It appeared the pedestrians were used to it, though, because they always scurried out of the way just in time as Hylian plowed ahead.
"Have you been to the city often, Hyl?"
"Often enough to know my way around, and often enough to know I don't like it here."
Bel nodded her understanding. She continued to study the crowds, and particularly anybody who wandered closely enough for her to read their individual aura. Most had the pale green of anxiety about them as an undertone to whatever conscious emotion they held, whether it was happiness at a friend's company, or anger at coming out on the wrong side of a bargain.
Even with the heavy atmosphere, Bel found it difficult to not be excited about the prospect of visiting this extraordinary city. Her home town of Aberly would get lost in a small corner of Letham. Even Crossley near where she lived had nothing to prepare her for the scale of even the outskirts of the capital.
She fingered her worry stone, but hadn't needed it yet, despite the flood of emotions assaulting her special senses, so she swallowed her own anxiety and enjoyed the sights as they wound their way through the complicated streets and intersections.
Finally, they came upon a head-tall wall extending in both direction with an ironwork fence on top. From up on the wagon, Belsira could see over the top and into the beautifully tended gardens inside. Dominating the landscape was a three-story building on a rise inside the compound. Bright white stonework gleamed in the sun, and even from outside, she could detect the intricate details carved into the facade. This was clearly the palace.
As they traveled along the street bordering the wall, Belsira also noticed many other lower buildings spread among the garden. These were probably the various government buildings that Hylian had told her about. They would have to register in one of these she imagined.
The guards turned into a nook set into the wall and Hylian followed them to the large wood and iron gate.
"Lady Hylian and Lady Belsira to see King Hartan," announced the lead messenger.
Belsira nearly laughed at the title, nobody had ever called her that before, but Hylian tensed and grew quiet as they passed through the gate. Whatever they were in for, there was no turning back now.
However, as they passed through the beauty of the garden, both of their spirits lifted. Hylian even pointed to some of the intricate formations of flowers while Belsira took in the refreshing fragrance, such a relief after the dank city streets.
They looped around the palace to the stable in back. Hylian made sure that Ginny was settled in her stall with an extra helping of grain, then they followed the lead messenger, Ventan, to the palace proper. They entered through a nondescript door on the side.
"This is the guest wing," Ventan said as he led them along the corridor. "And here's your suite. You will have a chance to freshen up before meeting with King Hartan and the general staff after dinner. You will dine at the main table as a guest of His Majesty. At five bells, just go to the end of the corridor here and ask the steward on duty for directions."
"Thank you, Ventan. It's been a long time since I've been here last. Is Samiel available? I'd like to talk with him if possible."
"I'll go see, Lady." As he left, several servants came in with their belongings. They hadn't brought much in the first place, and considering the expansive quarters they were given, it all seemed a mere pittance.
"This is all so beautiful," Belsira exclaimed when they were finally alone in their room.
"Enjoy it while you can, I have no idea how long we'll be here." Hylian went directly to the wash room to strip her trail-dirtied clothing and put on fresh.
Belsira looked down at her own filthy blouse and pants. Dinner with the King! She rushed over to her old green case and carefully pulled out her blue dress. She laid it out on the bed and used a bit of talent and excitement to smooth out the wrinkles with her hand. She had only worn it a handful of times since she made it three years ago, the last occasion over a year ago.
After Hylian finished, Belsira took her turn in the wash room, scrubbing away the dust and sweat. She felt much better when she put the dress on. Fortunately, she hadn't grown much since then, but it was still snug here and there.
When she looked in the full-length mirror, she was shocked at how pleased she was with the sight. The enhanced-blue fabric of the dress brought out her blue eyes and contrasted nicely with the straight blond hair falling across her shoulders. Not too bad, even if she thought so herself.
She didn't have any fancy shoes, though, so she just put on her newer pair of boots and brushed them clean. She also decided to tie her hair back with a ribbon of the same blue as her dress.
Hylian came out of her room wearing her yellow blouse and long, light tan skirt. Her long silver hair braided down her back. "I hope King Hartan will forgive the simplicity of an old woman."
"Nonsense, Hyl, you look wonderful. Besides, we didn't exactly have time to make or buy clothes for the occasion."
"True. Still, I feel out of place," she said as she gestured around the room.
"I know what you mean. I'm afraid to touch anything for fear of getting it dirty. Who is Samiel?"
"He was my teacher way back when. It's been years since I've seen him, not since he took up the job as adviser to the King."
"Your teacher? I suppose I've never thought of you as having needed a teacher."
"Oh yes. He was a good one. Needed to be with how stubborn I was at first."
"Yes, I quite resented my talent, the way it changed my life. I must have gone through a worry-stone a day at first, I had so much anger inside. Samiel never became impatient, though, he just kept pushing my lessons on me while he waited for my anger to burn itself out."
"I... I didn't know. I can't imagine you angry."
"That's the control. Fortunately, I've never really needed it with you. You never gave me cause for anger. I did need patience, though, for very different reasons. I owe much of what I am to Samiel."
"As I do to you, Hyl. I'm very glad you're my teacher."
"Me too, Bel."
They heard a polite knock on the door.
"Come," Hylian called.
The messenger entered. "Samiel is free before dinner and would very much like to see you, Lady Hylian."
"Thank you. If you could just show me the way. Bel, you'll have to find something to keep yourself busy, perhaps a stroll through the gardens? I'll see you at dinner."
"That sounds nice. Enjoy your visit."
Hylian left with the messenger and Belsira took a moment to enjoy the solitude of the huge suite. Everything was so shiny and bright compared to Hylian's cabin. It was also a bit sterile, which considering that nobody actually lived here, just visited, was natural.
She felt overwhelmed. A scant ten days ago, she had nothing more to concern her than the weeds in the garden. Now she was in the capital of all of Mardya as a guest of King Hartan himself.
And all because of her talent. Mixed blessing or mixed curse, she couldn't decide.
She still didn't understand exactly what good she could do in the war, when all of the power at her disposal were barely helpful with the chores around the cabin. She find out after dinner if she heard correctly, however, so she might as well enjoy the opportunity of being in the palace.
She opened the door, and found two guards standing in the hallway.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I was just going to visit the garden. Is it allowed?"
"Certainly, Lady. We're assigned here for your protection, but we would gladly escort you through the gardens. They are quite beautiful."
"My name is Neven, and this is Kell. We're to stay with you until you arrive at the main hall for dinner with King Hartan."
"Oh, for a second, I thought that, well..."
Neven blushed with embarrassment. "No, no, Lady Belsira, it's nothing of the sort. I'm sorry if we gave you that impression. I assure you, we're only her to protect you, nothing more."
"Don't worry, I believe you, it's just that, well, you do know that I have wild talent?"
"Yes, Lady. Of course, that's why you're here and also why we're here to protect you."
Well, that was more information than Belsira had before, so she let the subject drop with a smile. "Thank you. Now, which way to the garden?"
Neven and Kell escorted her deeper into the palace, then through the massive front hall out through the main entrance. They exited underneath the white marble archway supported by beautiful carved columns. As she passed, Belsira caught the intricate motifs wrapping around the columns.
In front of the palace, she saw the circular drive leading to the entrance. Inside the circle was a small decorative pond surrounded by beds of bright red flowers, though she couldn't tell what they were from this distance.
Neven recommended the path to the left, so she followed absentmindedly, enjoying the sights. Inside the geometric patterns carved by the winding paths, she could see the different styles of the gardens. Some were mixed flowers, others were carefully sculpted into colored patterns, others were no more than expanses of well manicured lawn. Evenly spaced in about every third plot stood a lush shade tree, always proportioned within the scale of the garden, and of course the palace. No matter how beautiful, Belsira could tell that all of this was designed to highlight the King's home on the rise in the center of the huge compound.
She took advantage of one of the many benches around the garden to sit and enjoy the view. Her guards remained standing, alert for what Belsira couldn't guess, but she felt reassured just the same.
She twisted around to get a closer look at the flower bed behind her. She could see the rich loam between the gaps in the flowers, could see how they were spaced and tended to keep them healthy and blooming with vigor. Still, she saw one little plant wilting in the sun, not filling its place in the arrangement.
She went around to bend down and examine it more closely. She gently pulled the flower from the soil, cradled the limp plant in her left hand and brushing away the dirt with her right. She took a couple of deep breaths, visualized her action, then focused her happiness into the little plant.
Slowly, the stems and leaves stiffened with renewed strength, and moisture filled the dry dead leaves and petals. Within a matter of moments, the little flower stood proud with its sisters, as full and healthy as any plant in the garden.
Then she stood up, she noticed Neven and Kell openly staring at her, jaws dropped. She smiled at their surprise, but her enthusiasm for the garden was gone, used up to save the little flower, so she started walking back toward the palace. She knew she wasn't here to help the King's garden grow, and it was time to find out exactly why.
Behind her, she heard the guards rush to catch up with her.
Belsira hated waiting. There was seldom time when she needed to wait, so she just wasn't used to it. She sat in a side room just off the main dining hall, staring at the carved molding and fidgeting with her worry stone.
Here she was, about to meet the King himself, to eat at his table, and nobody had bothered to show her how to act. She hoped that her simple country manners would be adequate and that Hartan might forgive an occasional gaffe.
She still wondered exactly why they needed her for this war. The grim manner of everybody on the palace grounds and the general aura of unease and fear both here and in the city didn't bode well, and she wanted to help, but wasn't sure how she could. Neven and Kell wouldn't tell her, had closed up tight after she had healed the flower. In the press of the moment, she had forgotten how uneasy most people were around wild talent. Yet that was the reason for her summons to the palace.
Finally, a steward came to escort her into the hall. "Here is your place, Lady Belsira," he said as he pulled a chair out for her at the midway point of the long table, set for twenty people. Only a few others were seated so far, and the tall ornate chair at the head to Bel's left, obviously King Hartan's place, was still empty.
Other guests began arriving through the four entrances around the hall. An older gentleman with his wife sat to her right, another man in uniform sat two places from the King's chair opposite Belsira.
Then she saw Hylian enter. She no longer wore her simple blouse and skirt, but a beautiful silken gown of white. Belsira had never seen Hyl look so lovely, her tall frame elegantly outlined by the fitted dress. Hylian came in on the arm of a very old man, dressed in a simple tunic and trousers. This must be Samiel, Hylian's teacher.
Hylian sat directly opposite Belsira, and after helping Hyl take her place, Samiel sat to Hyl's right.
Hylian smiled and glanced down at her fancy new dress. "Samiel wouldn't let me come unless I changed, so I borrowed this from the Minister's wife. Bel, I'd like you to meet Samiel, my teacher. Samiel, this is Belsira."
Samiel's smile was warm and friendly. "Pleased to meet you, young lady. Hylian's been telling me all about you."
She blushed at that, but both were smiling, so Hylian must have been kind. "Thank you, Sir. I'm happy to meet you also."
Other people came in and took their places around the table, then settled into small chat with their neighbors. With the wide table, Belsira was too far away to talk with Hyl, the only person she knew. The man to her right was busy with his wife, and the chair to her left remained empty.
But not for long. A tall, muscular man in a uniform strode in through the entrance behind Samiel. Long black hair flowed down his shoulders, and a short, gray-peppered beard hid half a scar running down from his left eye.
And those eyes -- black as coal -- scanning the room before he took another step, searching, seeking, and finding Belsira. His gaze nailed her to the back of her chair, froze her own stare towards him.
Rigid with fear, not only because of his stare but because there was a mild but unmistakable aura of anger around him that grew when he had looked at her, meaning she for some reason was its cause. He walked around the head of the table and sat beside her. She followed his every movement, afraid to let him out of her sight.
Still watching her, he reached out his hand, and she nearly leapt out of her seat. "I am General Kirtok."
She took three quiet breaths to still her heart, then took his hand. "I'm . . . Belsira."
He nodded once, then turned away.
Bel lowered her gaze and fidgeted with the silverware. She didn't want to look at Hylian, didn't want to see that her teacher knew how scared she was, how silly she was. Fortunately, a reprieve came quickly in the form of the steward's call for order. Everybody settled into place and faced toward the head of the table where he stood.
"Ladies and gentlemen." Everybody stood, so Bel quickly rose also. "May I present King Hartan the Fourth of the Great Nation of Mardya and his son and heir, Prince Rendell."
Two guards opened the pair of doors at the end of the hall, allowing the King and his ten-year-old son to enter.
Hartan took his place at the head of the table, and his son sat to his left. Once they settled, everybody else sat down again.
Then Samiel rose again and addressed the King. "You Majesty, may I have the pleasure of introducing to your table two new guests. First, I give you Lady Hylian of Crossley."
Hylian stood and bowed to the King. "Your Majesty."
"And Lady Belsira, also of Crossley." He gestured to Bel and she nearly knocked her chair backwards in her rush to stand, but managed to slow the motion of her bow in what she hoped was at least a little dignity. "Your Majesty."
When she sat again she gave silent thanks to Samiel for introducing Hylian first so she would know what to do.
"I want to thank you ladies for gracing my table with your beauty. I hope my hospitality is worthy."
Belsira had to smile at that, feeling much more at ease with his manner. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
She was still trying to control her blush when the servers brought the first course. She couldn't identify the soup, but she loved it. Nobody talked much during the meal, which suited her fine, she wouldn't know what to say to all of these important people. Samiel did try to engage her in conversation a couple of times. With a "What do you think of Latham?" here, or a "Did you enjoy the garden?" there, but Bel could tell he was more interested in catching up with Hylian, so she kept her answers short and went back to eating the wonderful meal set before her.
Both the gentleman on her right -- she still didn't know his name -- and General Kirtok on her left ignored her, but again, that didn't bother her. In fact, she'd rather not have to talk with Kirtok if she could help it, she didn't particularly care to have him look at her like that again.
Soon enough, the blur of mealtime was over. The King and his son left by the doors they had come in, then the other guests began to leave out the other doors. General Kirtok and some of the other men in uniform followed Hartan, however. She looked to Hylian and Samiel for instructions.
"Do we go back to our room now?"
"Heavens no, child," responded Samiel. "Didn't Hylian tell you what was going to happen tonight?"
"No, Samiel, I haven't had the chance. Ventan mentioned the meeting, but I wasn't sure whether he meant immediately after dinner or not," answered Hylian before Belsira could say anything. "I'm sorry, Bel, there is a lot I haven't let you know that I should have discussed during our trip, but I needed some answers first myself."
"Well, time enough for that later," Samiel said as he headed for the King's entrance. "We'd better not keep Hartan waiting."
Belsira followed Samiel and Hylian into the hall behind the doors and down it into a room off to the left. King Hartan and the rest were there settling around a table facing a large map of the land with all of the kingdoms of the Western Continent shown.
Samiel directed them toward three chairs on the left end.
Hartan stood before the map and bowed toward Hylian
and Belsira. "On behalf of the people of Mardya, I would like to thank you for your assistance during this crisis. Your service will of great help."
Hylian raised a hand to stop Hartan's speach. "Pardon, Your Majesty, but I'm afraid I haven't told Belsira any of the... details of our service, and I myself am still fuzzy on many of the events, so if you could please start from the very beginning and pardon our ignorance."
"Of course, Lady Hylian." He turned to the map and pointed to the western tip of the continent.
"Ever since Relath took control of Tarsem, then conquered Provene and Cathia, we've watched for what he would do next. Fortunately, it has taken him seven years to consolidate his holdings before he could safely look further afield.
"In anticipation of this, I've forged alliances with Dorine and Thantum to the north of Mardya, and Melwick and Sontara to the south. And since we're in the center and directly face Tarsem to the west, we've been preparing our military for the possibility of war."
He turned to Hylian and Belsira. "It appears that this war is upon us." He pointed to the western coast. "Merchants have reported massive shipbuilding projects along the north coast of Tarsem in the port of Helmas, along the western coast of Provene, and in the southern ports of Cathia, especially on the Isle of Carth.
"We thought Relath was preparing for attacks along the coast, to seize Dorine and Melwick, to continue his expansion by surrounding Mardya, cutting us off from the sea through our neighbors. If successful, he could have moved next against Thantum and Sontara. Finally, we would be next, crushed from all sides."
Hartan moved away from the map. "We were preparing to send reinforcements to Dorine and Melwick, to stop Relath in his tracks. Compared to our allied kingdoms, he has half the population to draw on, little more than that in resources. It really should have been easy to halt his expansion, to even push him back and perhaps liberate the people living under his brutal rule.
"However, two weeks ago, assassins simultaneously murdered every unprotected person with wild talent in Mardya -- twenty-three at last count."
Belsira gasped in surprise and shock, but she could only see Hylian's grim expression turn colder. "But, why?" she asked Hartan and Hylian both.
"Because of something I haven't even begun to teach you, Bel. Something I had hoped would never be necessary. There's a reason why people are uncomfortable around those of us with wild talent. Given the right circumstances, we can very powerful, very destructive."
"But that's why you taught me to control it, so I wouldn't hurt anybody." Belsira didn't like where this was going.
"And you learned well, child. I trust your control as much as I trust my own. This goes beyond control, though. What we will be asked to do now is to no longer place limits on our abilities, but to expand them, use them at entirely new levels. This still involves control, but control of vast forces."
Hylian faced Hartan again. "How many are left?"
"Jolyle and Nimian were with their legions, unreachable by assassins. The only other one that they couldn't get was Samiel."
"And that's because I'm a King's adviser, Hyl. The only reason you two are still alive is because you never properly registered. If I hadn't known where you were hiding at, we wouldn't have been able to summon you here to help."
"That's the reason I never let anybody know where I was. I only took Belsira as a pupil as a favor to you, Samiel."
Hartan scowled at Samiel. "You kept both of them secret from me?"
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty. Hylian was my student, is my friend. I never thought there would be a need for them to formally register with the others."
"But there is a need now, Samiel."
"Yes, that is why I sent for them. There's no doubt of it now."
Hylian interrupted. "I might also point out that if we were on your list, we'd probably also be dead."
Hartan considered that. "Yes, I do suspect treachery within the palace, so that's probably correct. Besides, we must work now with what we have, not concern ourselves with how we reached this position."
Belsira had been following the exchange in a daze, tilting her head back and forth between all of these people talking about her but not to her. She didn't like it. "But why is it this important that we're here. What can we do?" she demanded.
Everybody was taken back by her interruption and tone, not the least King Hartan. He glared at Hylian, though, not Belsira.
"Surely you're not that isolated up where you live. Didn't you teach her about the outside world? Didn't you ever explain what was happening?"
Belsira saw the growing red aura of his anger around him, but when she looked at Hylian, she saw the same cool demeanor that her teacher always displayed. Hylian never averted her own stare from the King, returned it full bore.
"I taught Belsira geography, and I taught her the history of our land and all of the kingdoms. I never much cared for politics, so I never bored her with the subject."
"Politics?" Hartan huffed. "This isn't politics, this is survival."
"I know," Hylian replied quietly. "That is why we are here. I trust Samiel, and if he thought it was important enough to reveal my whereabouts, then I thought it was important enough to come. He was right. Now if you would kindly tell us what we will have to do -- keeping in mind Belsira's lack of knowledge through no fault of her own -- I'm sure we will both be glad to assist you."
Hartan continued to glare at Hylian, but the red faded to a dull glow that Belsira could tolerate without cringing. "Very well."
First of all, Relath understands the importance of wild talent to battle because he is one himself. That's largely how he gained his position and power in the first place. From what we understand about him, he also uses his abilities with ruthless precision in his personal dealings with his underlings -- I'm sure you understand how useful knowing the emotions of those around you can be."
Belsira nodded silently at that. She tried not to take advantage of that window into other peoples' minds, but it was just so easy to take a path of least resistance when you knew somebody's emotions weren't matching their words.
He returned to the map and continued to address the room, although Bel could tell that his explanations were meant for her. Everybody else probably knew all of this already.
"First of all, to enter a major battle without a talent is tantamount to suicide. That is why Relath murdered everybody that he could identify in Mardya with talent. I'm sure the same has happened in the other allied kingdoms, but we're still awaiting word on how bad it may be.
"The reasons for all of this you will learn during your training, so I won't go into that here." For this he did look at Belsira.
"As said before, Jolyle was with the First Legion under General Ordron. They have been positioned on the border with Tarsem south of Flendon Marsh. Nimian is with the Second Legion under General Varini north of the marsh, and across from the mouth of the Flendon River. It's possible that Relath may try to float an army down the river to land on our eastern shore of the Seldon River.
"We've already called reserves to bolster the First Legion from eight thousand to twelve thousand, and the Second Legion from seven to ten.
"South of Latham, across the River Gellile we have been forming a Third Legion under General Tragg. We expect to call an additional twenty thousand men for this last force, just about at the limits of Mardya's capacity for fighting men.
"The talent for this force was to be provided by Samiel, but there were problems with this. First is the undeniable fact that he is much too old to be traipsing around the country." For the first time, a smile passed Hartan's face. "With your arrival, I am glad that I won't have to subject him to that. He knows the stakes as well as anybody, though, and would have served the legion well I'm sure."
Hartan's face turned serious again. "The other problem is that we wouldn't have had much flexibility. We would have had to keep the full force together to benefit from his talent, but moving a force of twenty thousand is extremely difficult. We know that we can expect attacks on our neighbors to the north and south, but we would have no way of anticipating which one may need our help. If we send the Third Legion south to Melwick we may have found them victorious against Relath's forces there, but his armies may have conquered Dorine then moved south into Mardya unopposed.
"We would have had no choice but to wait here until we knew where the threat came from, north, south or west. Even then we would only be able to meet it well within our own borders."
He paused to gather a breath and his calm.
"That is why I am very pleased by your arrival. I can now safely divide our forces into smaller, more mobile units. General Tragg here will take a smaller Third Legion of eight thousand with Hylian as talent towards the west. The Third will take the First's place guarding Hannar's Ford south of Flendon Marsh. The First will slide north to the Second's place. The Second Legion will then pull back to the northeast to cover the pass through the Dellion Hills from Dorine. If necessary, they will proceed onto Dorine to help them fight.
"Meanwhile, we will also form a Fourth Legion under General Kirtok. He will have seven thousand, and Belsira will be the talent."
What? Belsira glanced down the table to see Kirtok staring at her again, still grumpy and as fearsome as before. At least she knew now why the general was angry. Oblivious to her discomfort at the news, Hartan continued.
"When the force is fully assembled and trained as well as time permits, the Fourth will march directly south toward the pass in the Kyteen Range into Melwick. Like the Second, you will determine if you are needed there and proceed if so. If not, you will follow the Seldon westward around the Polima Hills and toward Cathia. I don't want any of Relath's forces to slip around behind the Third Legion and into Mardya.
"Finally, with whatever remaining forces we can muster, which may be no more than five thousand, we will form a Fifth Legion under my direct command and talented by Samiel. We will be the last resort, the reinforcements to wherever we are needed, whether north to Dorine or Thantium, south to Melwick, or west to support those legions. We will stay centralized here in Latham until needed."
With that, Hartan was finished with his lecture. Belsira could only gape at the enormity of what was happening around her. Over forty thousand men in arms, and that just in Mardya.
And she was going to war. As the talent to an entire legion, whatever that meant. No wonder Kirtok was scrutinizing her, his legion would depend on her, her abilities, her control -- or lack of it.
Hartan had a few last things to say, though. "We all know the seriousness of this. Normally, we would have expected Relath to encircle us before attacking Mardya directly, a process that may have taken years. This attack on our talents may mean that he feels he can move directly against us now. At the very least it makes his actions totally unpredictable, and we won't know what's happening in the other kingdoms until several days after it does."
Hartan paced back and forth with his anxiety. "I want you to send relay riders whenever you discover any new information, and every three days no matter what the circumstances."
Hartan clasped his hands behind his back and took a deep breath. "We've talked, we've planned, but now we must act. I can only hope that our efforts will be enough. I offer you all one more night of comfort in my home before you leave to fight for us all. I know that it may be impossible, but I wish you all a good night's sleep. Thank you."
Belsira could now see the weariness that he must be suffering. How hard had he worked to set these plans in motion? She could see the sadness -- that any of this should come to pass at all -- and she could see the fear if they should lose.
When King Hartan had left the room, everybody at the table rose to leave. Samiel gestured for Hylian and Belsira to follow him.
He led them out a different way than they had come, twisting through the halls of the giant palace until Bel had lost all sense of where she was. Eventually, they came out in the hallway leading to the guest rooms and he led them to their suite.
At the door he stopped. "Hyl, I truly am sorry that I had to call you here for this."
"I know, Sam. I would never shirk this duty, as distasteful as it is."
"And you, Belsira. I will never be able to make this up to you. No one so young should be subject to what you are about to face."
Among all of the people Bel knew, these two were the only ones she couldn't hide her fear and anxiety from, so she didn't try. "I'll do my best. I hope it's enough."
"We all do, Bel. We all do." With that, Samiel turned and shuffled away, truly looking his age. The strain of the situation affected everybody.
Once in the room, Hylian lit a couple of lamps from the light in the hallway then changed into her nightclothes. Belsira just sat on her bed, contemplating nothing and everything at once.
"You really should try to sleep. This may be the last chance either of us get to use a bed in quite a while."
"All right," she said absentmindedly as she changed. This all was so unreal. Here she was in the palace of the King, the most beautiful place she had ever been, in a room as big as Hylian's whole cabin, and she couldn't enjoy any part of it with the war looming in the back of her mind. What could she do? More important, what could her talent do?
She laid down, pulled the covers over herself and settled into the softest pillow she had ever felt, the little good it would do her this night.
What could she do?
What did they want her to do?
Could she do it?
Over and over she asked the questions. Over and over her mind refused to answer. She asked and asked and asked to the darkness. Never did an answer come forth.
Finally, she exhausted herself with the worry, so her body saved her any more trouble by forcing her to sleep, even if only a troubled one.
The morning fell bright through the window, but Bel couldn't enjoy its splendor. She dressed automatically, ate mechanically at the breakfast brought to the room, repacked without thinking of what she would truly need.
Hylian was also silent this morning, a frown on her face, though her emotions remained unreadable via aura as usual.
Porters gathered their belongings and took them away, then Samiel came to walk them out to the wagons.
"I'll be out in a couple of days, Hyl, to help with your and Belsira's training. I need some practice in the battle techniques myself."
"That'll be fine, Sam, It will probably take me that long to figure out how to put on the armor." She smiled, but neither laughed at her attempt at a joke, the mood was too dour.
They mounted the wagon next to the driver, Hylian on the inside, and they were off. Belsira looked back one last time to the magnificent palace, and wondered if she'd ever get a chance to see it again. Soon they were through the side service gate and onto the city streets. This time, with dozens of mounted guards around an entourage that included two generals, there was a great deal of attention being paid to them, and even more nervousness in the auras than before.
Belsira turned her attention to the generals riding ahead of the wagon. General Tragg was older, grayed hair and beard, slightly stocky. His uniform was impeccably pressed and festooned with decorations and medals. He exuded authority with a quiet dignity, but also with an aloofness that made her uneasy. Tragg rode through the city with nary a glance around him at the activities or people.
General Kirtok, on the other hand, seemed to be very interested in what was going on around him, his head swiveling to take in the slightest activity around them as they passed through the streets. He didn't directly acknowledge anybody on the ground, and his expression never changed, but his curiosity was clear.
His uniform was also neat and fit well like Tragg's, but except for rank insignia on his shoulders, was without decorations, and it wasn't as if he didn't have any to wear, at the King's dinner, there were plenty on his chest. Given his muscular build and rougher looks, it would have been easy to mistake him for one of the guards, but if anything, his authority was a greater presence than the other general's.
Then, he looked back at Belsira, once again locked onto her gaze before she could avert her eyes. After a moment, he turned forward again, but then slowed his horse's pace so that her wagon would catch up to him.
When he was alongside, he spoke without looking at her. "When I'm being watched, I usually know it."
She had no reply to that, just lowered her gaze to the ground and tried to make herself disappear.
"I'm sure you have many questions, now is as good a time as any to ask."
She did have questions. Many of them, but couldn't think of any under his scrutiny.
"Maybe later then." He continued riding alongside, however, instead of moving up to his previous position.
For the first time this morning, she noticed an aura from him. Nervousness? It seemed so out of place with his sure and confident demeanor, but at least it was better than him being angry. She even heard a bit of hesitance when he spoke again. "I understand that this... situation is difficult for you. It will be important in the days ahead for us to be able to communicate as openly as possible."
She nodded. She certainly hoped so, but everything was going too fast, the situation was too big, and she felt too small.
Kirtok tried once more. "I'm a man used to given orders and having them being obeyed, but the situation between us is different. While I understand what talent can do on a battlefield, I also realize that your abilities are difficult to control. I suppose it's similar to how I may give an order during a battle, but by the time it filters through my subcommanders and then to the soldiers, what happens on the field may at best be an approximation of my intent."
Belsira listened, nodded again, then noticed that Hylian beside her wasn't going to interfere with this discussion. It was her place to respond. "I'll try to do my best, sir."
Another pause. They rode a ways down the main street then turned south onto a broad street flanked with rows of broad shade trees before he spoke again.
"Officially and traditionally, the Battle Talent is third in command of the legion."
Now that piqued her curiosity. "Oh?"
"Yes. Loric is my second, you'll meet him in camp. Now, while I won't change this arrangement or lessen the authority granted you, I hope you'll understand that under normal circumstances, a Battle Talent has had extensive military training and understands military traditions and methods."
"Oh yes, certainly, I understand I think. I don't think you'll have to worry about me pushing my weight around when I don't know what's going on."
"Yes, thank you. At the same time, please remember that it is important that you and your position are always treated respectfully. I can and will tell the men and officers of the legion this, but all the same, how you carry yourself will matter more in the end."
She thought about that a moment, nodded.
A short time later, they exited the south gate of Letham along the bank of the Gillile River, and crossed the Three Arc Bridge that led to the open plains beyond. Along the road, grain fields waved in the morning breeze, and Belsira noticed by its absence that the mild stench of city life had fallen behind them.
Maybe it was his efforts, maybe it was the fact that nobody except their own party was around to watch, but she finally felt comfortable enough to start asking her own questions.
"General, please tell me, what am I supposed to do for you. For the life of me, I think about all of the times I've used my talent, and I can't understand how they'd be useful in a battle enough to justify all the attention we're receiving."
Kirtok thought a moment in silence. "Very well, I will try to explain at least the rudiments of what a battle talent does during combat.
"First and foremost, your task is to shield and protect our soldiers from the opposing talent. What's important to understand is that there will be thousands of men engaged in battle before you, and the amount of emotional energy spilling from the field is far greater and far more focused than anything a talent experiences at any other time. Fear, hatred, anger. The emotions we try to avoid all our lives will flow like a river, and the destructive potential of that negative energy is a resource in battle we cannot afford to waste."
He gave her a moment to appreciate the implications of what he said, then continued.
"As an example of a method you'll probably use often, that power can be used to weaken the weapons and armor of the enemy so that our soldiers have an easier fight. The ground beneath them can also be softened so they can't achieve a sure footing. So while you can't directly attack the soldiers on the other side, your abilities can give our men a decided advantage."
She could see it now, and it made sense for once.
"So my talent is... an influence on the fight, but not necessarily a part of it?"
He hesitated. "That's essentially correct, but there are techniques you'll learn that are more direct, but when there's an opposing talent, most of your work will be involved in balancing his power so that we don't suffer from such effects. I have great confidence in our soldiers in a fair fight, so for the time being, I'll be satisfied with that. However, I would much rather it be an unfair fight to our advantage, if you can manage that for me." For the very first time, he smiled at her, and she couldn't help but smile in return.
"I will try, General. I will certainly try."
That seemed to satisfy him, and they rode for a while longer in silence, but Belsira had one more question for him.
"General, if I may. I noticed how curious you were about the activities and people of the city. Is there something you were looking for in particular?"
He thought a moment before replying. "No. You have to realize, I've been a soldier since I left home. I have no family, and the legion has been my life for over twenty years now, so I don't feel much connection to how civilians live anymore. I don't regret my decisions, but I do have to remind myself that there is more to this world than my soldiers and my duties.
"Most importantly, I have to remind myself that it is those people, who may have no idea how my world works or even that it exists, that I'm fighting for. If you ever have doubts about your duties or what you will be asked to do, that is what you should remember. If we fail, it is they who will eventually suffer."
Belsira thought about that, and thought about her own family for the first time in ages. As far as she knew, they had no idea she was part of the war now.
In the distance, she noticed a dusty haze rising from the plain, and as they rolled over a rise, she saw the camp. Thousands of tents dotted the fields against the far bank of the Gillile where it had looped back around to the east. She had been impressed with Latham and its scope, but this tent city was truly overwhelming.
General Kirtok pointed to the camp. "There are fourteen thousand men here now, and another six thousand due within days." Belsira could only gasp at the numbers -- as many people in this camp as lived in the capital city of Mardya.
Their group continued through the camp. Men sparred with swords and pikes, sergeants barked orders to young men fresh off the farm, captains organized their groups of new recruits as best they could. Belsira saw all of this and felt dazed, as if it were all a dream and none of it could be real.
They passed sheds with smiths pounding metal into weapons, others with cooks slaving over fires as they struggled to feed the massed troops. She never considered how much food an army could consume. How would they keep the legions supplied?
The answer came as they passed row after row of wagons stacked to bursting with sacks and barrels and crates of all kinds. There were even dozens of wagons carrying nothing but firewood. She couldn't even begin to imagine where all of this material came from. The immense effort of this war seemed to weigh down the very air around her.
Their little procession finally came to a stop at a compound of buildings in the middle of the camp. General Kirtok dismounted his horse and approached the wagon.
"If you ladies will come with me, we'll make sure you have what you need."
He marched into the first building with Hyl and Bel in tow and approached an officer at the desk in the corner. "Mill, I need the armorer to come to fit our new battle talents with light plate."
"Yes, sir." Mill left through the back door on his errand.
"Berrick, is everything on schedule?"
"Yes, General. We're still waiting on an order of salt beef, but it should be here late tomorrow."
"Good, good. And the men?"
"They seem eager if undisciplined, but Captains Vardick and Rorton are whipping them into shape."
"Excellent. Captain Berrick, this is Lady Hylian, she'll be Tragg's battle talent, and this is her student, Belsira, talent for our Fourth."
The captain stood and extended his hand as he looked the women up and down. Belsira could see the doubt written on his face. She couldn't blame him as the sight of an old woman and a young girl amidst this massive war machine just seemed ludicrous to her at the moment. "Pleased to meet you, Lady Hylian, Lady Belsira."
"Thank you, Captain," Hylian replied. "Do you know where our quarters will be? We need to get settled so we can begin training. We have a lot to catch up on."
"Er . . . umm, begin?" He shot Kirtok a questioning look, but quickly recovered. "Yes, certainly. This way."
He led them through the back and between the rows of buildings. As Belsira examined them, she could tell that they had been hastily assembled and hardly finished at all.
Berrick escorted them to a long barracks building with a series of six doors along the side and led them into the fourth room. Inside stood two double bunks against the side walls and not much else.
"This barracks is for junior officers, but hasn't been needed yet. You can have this room to yourselves -- for obvious reasons. I'll send your belongings around as well as the armorer."
Hylian took a look around. "Thank you, Captain Berrick. This will be fine."
"Very well," he said as he rushed out to get back to his duties.
Belsira examined her new quarters, pushed against the bunks to test their sturdiness -- not very. "I think I'll sleep in the bottom of this one."
"Good idea, Bel. A little bit of a letdown after the palace."
"I don't know. I think I'll be more comfortable here. I was afraid to touch anything in our palace room."
"Yes, this is small, it's dingy, it's just like home."
Bel found herself smiling at that despite her uncertain mood. The close quarters allowed her to feel safer, more secure than the vast expanse of the palace suite. She felt like hiding, hunkering down in the nearest corner and refusing to come out. She still had little idea of what was expected of her, but she knew that people were going to die, possibly because of her.
Hartan had made it quite clear that this war couldn't be fought without her wild talent. She knew it was rare, but only twenty-eight, now reduced to five, in all of Mardya? There were over two hundred thousand people in the kingdom according to the last census.
"What do you think of General Kirtok?" Hylian asked.
"He seems all right now, but it took a while to get past my first impression."
"Yes, he is an imposing man. I wouldn't want to cross him."
"Me neither. I hope I can do what he wants."
"You can only do what you promised, Bel. Your best."
Hylian left the gloom of the room, it still had no lamps, to stand in the open doorway. Some soldiers appeared with their trunks in tow and brought them into the room and placed them at the foot of each bunk.
Hyl pulled one aside. "Excuse me, young man, would you be so kind as to point me in the right direction for the... ah... accomodations?"
He stood puzzled for a moment, but then caught her meaning. "Yes, ma'am, you'll find those facilities for officers down at the end of this row of barracks and to the left."
"Thank you. Bel, I'll be right back."
Belsira sat on her bunk, bounced a bit to test it -- hard as a rock as she had guessed. She had a feeling falling asleep tonight wouldn't be a problem for once.
Belsira awoke to the morning horns echoing throughout the camp with a three-note phrase. She lay still, savoring the warm comfort of the bunk. Despite it's flaws, it was preferable to facing the chill, early morning.
When she finally rolled out of bed, she found Hylian already dressed in her armor and ready to go.
"Hyl, what happened to your hair?"
"Hylian brushed her hand over the silver fuzz that was all that remained. "Much easier to deal with this way. We'll be having rough times ahead, Bel, with very little time for niceties. Best you do the same."
Belsira brushed her fingers through her tangled locks of blond hair. "I... I don't think I could bear to do it. Must I?"
"No, dear, nobody will force you. In time you'll agree, though."
"Just the same, I'd like to wait until then."
"Very well." Hylian pointed to Belsira's new armor. "This however is not an option. You need to get used to it, and you also have to be sure that it fits properly. After training today, go to the chief armorer and tell him where it hurts. He'll know which pains call for refits, and which you'll have to tough out."
Belsira laughed. "You sound like you've done all this before."
"Ha, no. That's just what a kind young officer told me last evening when I was wandering around exploring."
Belsira struggled with the fastenings. The armorer had been thorough in explaining, but there had been so much, she had forgotten the details anyway. After a bit, with Hylian's help, she managed to get it all on at least.
After they found the mess tent and had a breakfast that Belsira felt was far too much, they separated to find their respective units in each legion.
A few queries later, she found herself on the far side of the compound beyond the mass of soldiers' tents. In a small clearing, she found a couple dozen soldiers and their captain in the middle of a training session.
She stood back and watched a bit. The soldiers were lined up facing the captain, and when he stepped in opposition to each, he set himself ready with a wooden practice sword, then that soldier charged with his own sword.
Each time, the soldier would swing, and either miss or get blocked, then the captain would make a counter move and whack the soldier with the blunt wooden sword. Belsira winced in sympathy each time, and could imagine the bruises that the captain was inflicting on his men.
Another attacked, trying a different tactic, but the result was the same. Belsira noticed the auras of frustration and anger growing in the men, but then she realized that throughout the entire exercise, the captain had no aura around him. Not even a bit of satisfaction in winning each contest. When he yelled instructions to his men, no hint of anger accompanied the booming voice. Nothing.
When the last in line had his turn at being swiftly defeated by the captain, Belsira finally approached.
"Yes, that's me. You must be Lady Belsira. Welcome to the Fourth Legion. Your left shoulder strap is fastened wrong. Dogan! Show her how it's supposed to go."
"Yes sir!" One of the young soldiers approached her, hesitated a bit, then started fussing with her armor. "Pardon me, Lady, but if you wrap it around the leather this way, they tuck it under here, the fit will be more secure."
Belsira tried to stand still against his pushing and pulling, but she felt like a rag doll against his obvious strength, and they both began to blush at the awkwardness of the situation. "Thank you, Dogan."
When he was finished, Portik approached her again. "Have you ever handled a sword before?"
"The correct answer is 'no, Captain.'"
"Battle Talents outrank all in the legion except the General or his aide, therefor you do not call me sir. Captain, or Captain Portik are both acceptable, Lady."
"Oh, thank you, Captain."
"However, while you do outrank me in the legion, my duty and authority when it comes to your protection is absolute, and when I give an order pertaining to those duties, I expect it to be carried out instantly and without hesitation. Do you, understand?"
"Yes, Captain Portik."
He reached for her right hand, took it in his, then examined it, turning it over and rubbing her palm. "You obviously have worked with tools, your hands have enough calluses where blisters shouldn't be too much of a problem."
"Yes, we have a large garden we have to work for most of our food, so I'm used to hard work, Captain Portik."
He nodded, but said nothing. He then handed her his wooden sword. "Dogan, draw your weapon and hold it in primary parry position."
The soldier did what he was told, holding his own wooden sword out in front of him with the blade turned sideways and parallel to the ground.
"Lady Belsira, strike his weapon with your own, full strength."
She nodded, tested the grip in her hand. She had swung hoe and sickle plenty back at Hylian's cabin, so she felt confident she could put a good effort into it. She shifted her feet for balance, took a good windup, and arced the sword overhead with all her might.
When hers struck Dogan's, the shock stung her hand so much she lost her grip and her sword clunked to the ground. Some of the men started to laugh, but a stare from Portik silenced them immediately.
Belsira winced, tried the shake some feeling back into her numbed hand, picked up the sword again. She desperately wanted to take an easier swing, but she knew that's what he expected her to do. This time, she made sure to put more of her legs and body into the motion for more power. Again the sword came around in an arc to strike Dogan's.
And again she dropped her own, this time with an audible yelp at the pain. She only just managed to keep herself from cursing as well.
"I'm obviously doing something wrong, Captain Portik, I'm not afraid to admit it. So what should I be doing instead?"
"No, your form is actually decent for a beginner. You just have to get used to the impact. Dogan, you stay with her until she completed fifty swings with each hand. Then she can parry your blows fifty times with each hand. You may take only half swings, but no less, understand?"
Fifty more times? She didn't think her hands would survive five more blows, much less another hundred. She wasn't going to let him have the satisfaction of watching her fail, however, so she picked up the sword once again. Dogan braced himself, and she could see the apology written in his eyes. She nodded her recognition to him, then swung again.
She stared at her sword on the ground once again, and it took every ounce of her control not to use her anger to pulverize the cursed thing into dust.
An eternity later, she had finished her fifty blows with each hand. For a while during the middle of each run, she had managed to hang onto her sword most of the time, but then she began dropping it again as the pain built beyond tolerable levels near the end. And now it was time for Dogan to strike at her sword.
He never said a word, but she understood through his manner and aura that he felt badly about it all. She also understood that if he held back more than the half blows Portik had allowed, there'd be consequences they'd both regret.
All the time, Portik worked with the other soldiers, never giving a hint of emotion whether he was screaming at a recruit who had just failed an exercise, or praising a successful effort. The part of Belsira's mind not preoccupied with pain was intensely curious about this man without the ubiquitous aura that had previously surrounded everybody she had ever seen. Even Hylian with her vast practice at emotional control was never able to completely suppress her aura.
Dogan's blow easily knocked the sword out her hand, and the world closed in to just the agony of her hand as she squeezed her eyes tight to blank out the pain and hide the tears welling up.
Breathing deeply in an almost trancelike state, she once again, bent down, picked up her sword, and held it above her. Dogan swung again, and this time she held on, but nearly collapsed from the effort and pain. Somewhere in a distant part of her mind, she recognized that the muscles of her arms were aching from the exertion as well, but it almost didn't matter against the burning of her hands. A blister had popped on her palm, and blood now dripped onto the handle of the sword.
Still she held it aloft once again.
Finally, when she was reaching down to pick up the sword yet another time, Dogan stepped in and told her they were done. He took her gently by the shoulders, and led her to the weapons rack where there was a bucket of water on the ground. She dipped her hands into the cool water, and winced at the new pain mixed with glorious relief.
Before she had much of a chance to tend to her aching and bleeding hands, Portik began shouting to everybody in the unit.
"Good work, everybody. I think such commendable effort deserves a nice scenic tour of the compound, don't you?"
When Belsira heard all the men groan, she knew something bad was about to happen. Dogan's whisper to her confirmed her fears. "That means we have to take a run around then entire camp." Then he walked over to join the other men.
Belsira closed her eyes, concentrated on the soothing coolness of the water, fearing and knowing what was to come next.
"Lady Belsira, would you care to join us?"
Although phrased as a request, the tone certainly didn't imply any possibility that she could decline. She pulled her hands out of the water, stood up, and with far more sarcasm than she intended, replied, "It would be my pleasure, Captain Portik."
By the time they reached the far side of the perimeter, her only solace was that the burning in her lungs and legs as least somewhat distracted her from the pain in her hands. The men in the unit were obviously used to this by now, and it was almost funny how they had to slow down to let her keep up. Laughing was the furthest thing from her mind, however.
"You did good, Lady Belsira," Dogan said as he jogged beside her. Several of the other men agreed. A couple told her how unfair Portik was being to her.
She sensed their anger on her behalf, but there was more. She glanced around at how they were surrounding her, unconsciously forming a protective bubble as they ran. She understood then that the point of the sword exercise was far more than preparing her hands and arms for the rigor of combat. Portik had been deliberately cruel to make sure her guards formed a bond of common hardships with her.
This insight didn't stop her hands from throbbing or her lungs from burning, but her resentment of the treatment lessened somewhat.
When they finally got back to their training area, Portik allowed them all an hour rest for lunch, but she could barely handle the utensils, and felt sick from exhaustion on top of it all, so ate very little.
The afternoon was then spent doing general exercises, and by the time they were done, Belsira's armor felt twice as heavy from her sweat alone. When they finally finished for the day, it was all she could do to drag herself back to her quarters, squirm out of her wet stinky armor, and collapse into her bunk. She wasn't sure anymore that camaraderie was worth this.
She heard Hylian come in, and by the way she was moving around, Bel could tell that at least they didn't put her through the same kind of training, it likely would have killed her mentor if they had.
All the time, as she drifted into an achy, fitful sleep, she kept asking herself, "What did I do to deserve this?"
"Yes, mama?" Belsira had been playing in her father's workshop, trying to make a horse out of a spare bit of clay. She stepped out of the door so her mother could hear her better. "What?"
Her mother was leaning out the kitchen window. "Dinner's almost ready and your father should be home any minute. Could you go get Tamias? He should be playing out back with Jarem."
"All right," she called back, then went back into the shop to place her half-finished horse on the bench. She rinsed her hands in the tub of dipping water her father used when working his pottery wheel, then dried them on some spare rags.
As she crossed the field behind her house, she figured she knew where Tam was with his puppy -- there was a giant old oak that he loved to climb whenever he could get away from his lessons and chores.
Belsira instinctively looked around for her butterflies, but they were long gone in this late summer heat, and the flowers were dull dry things ready to drop their seeds into the yellowing grass. There was nothing to use her talent on out here.
It was only good for small things, though her teacher said it would come in handy if she took up a craft like her father's pottery. Talent was rare enough that for awhile, she was given some extra attention, especially in a town as small as Aberley. However, since whenever she used her own emotions to power the talent, she never felt as good afterward, and it was rude to use other people's emotion without their permission, she didn't use it much anymore.
It did have its benefits, though, especially the aura. She could spot an angry red aura from father on the rare occasions when things weren't going so well in his shop and make sure to stay out of his way. She also knew that when old Fostler at the market had a happy blue aura around him, he was likely to give her a sweet.
After a short hike through the woods, she spotted Jarem dancing and barking around the trunk of Tam's oak. He was looking up into the tree's canopy and whining, wondering just what in the world his boy was doing way up there.
Belsira followed his gaze and could just make out Tam's form way up into the branches, almost hidden by the foliage and branches.
"You're gonna fall," she called up to her brother.
"No I'm not. You're just jealous because you're too small to climb up here with me."
"Am not, I'm almost eight! I don't even want to climb your stupid old tree. I'm just here to tell you to come in for dinner."
"All right, I'll be down in a minute." Belsira could hear the rustle of leaves as Tam worked his way down from his perch.
"Well, I'm not waiting," she called up to him. "C'mon, Jarem, let's go home and get something to eat."
Jarem looked from the tree to Belsira as she walked away and back again. He finally decided that at least he could reach Belsira and bounded after her.
"Hey! Wait up," cried Tamias as he scrambled to get down.
As the puppy caught up to Belsira he danced happy little circles around her feet, almost tripping her a couple of times, but she didn't mind and laughed at his antics.
"We'll probably get home before he even hits the ground," she said as she scratched behind his left ear.
She was nearly right. She had been sitting on the bench outside the shop door for a bit playing with Jarem before she saw Tam and his angry red aura appear from the woods across the field. He may be two years older than her, but he could be such a baby sometimes.
As he neared, she could see a pretty nasty scrape on his right forearm, but other than that ignored him while she petted Jarem nestled on her lap.
"I told you to wait," he snapped as he stepped onto the porch.
"Why should I? You're not my boss."
Tamias didn't have an answer to that as he seethed, so he snatched the puppy out of Belsira's lap, causing it to yelp in surprise.
Now she was mad. She reached for Tam's anger and directed it into the puppy so it would bite him, imagining sharper teeth for it at the same time.
The simultaneous cries from Tamias and Jarem startled all of them. Tam dropped the dog and grabbed the new gash on his arm. He took only an instant to decide what had happened, though, and he balled his hand into a fist a pulled back to pound on Belsira. "You!"
"No!" she screamed, but not in reaction to his fist, but to the immense red flare of his anger. She pulled her legs up close, lifted her arms to block his blow, and sucked as much of the anger out of him as she could.
The blow never fell; the destructive energy of his anger never reached her. Instead, they were both distracted by the piercing, anguished cry from Jarem.
They both looked down and gasped at the sight of the puppy writhing in agony as its body was grotesquely deformed by the energy pouring into it through Belsira.
"Stop it!" cried Tam. His fists were at his side but he wasn't making a move. Through tears of anger and fear he cried again, "Stop it, Bel! Please stop!"
Through her own tears she shook her head. New waves of anger and now fear poured through her like a torrent from Tam. The only channel open for her to expel it was into the puppy. She tried to stop, wanted to stop with all of her being, but she was no longer in control.
She could feel Tam's energy draining, but it was too late for poor Jarem, barely recognizable now, limbs twisted and broken by the forces coursing through his tiny body. If only the screams would end. Please stop the screaming she prayed.
Finally it did. Tam had nothing left to provide to Belsira's talent. He stood frozen in position, fists still at his side, tears still streaming of their own accord, but his aura was gone. He stared blankly at Jarem, but he had no emotional response left to react to the horror at his feet.
Belsira did, though. Her own tears and whimpers mixed with the gurgling struggles from the puppy-thing as she rocked on her heels on the bench. What had she done? As much as she wanted to, she couldn't look away from the sack of flesh that had been her brother's puppy. What had she done?
She heard her mother scream, then rush over to grab Tam and pull him away. Her father ran from around the corner, then stopped in his tracks at the sight before him.
"Jarl, take that monstrous... thing... away," her mother said as she pulled Tam into the house.
Without saying a word, he went into his shop, and came out with his coal shovel. Belsira half-expected him to come after her, but instead he grasped Jarem by the scruff of the... she didn't know what anymore, and dragged it around the corner. Belsira heard two thuds, and the whimpering stopped, at least from it.
She hugged her knees and cried. What did she do? Why did this have to happen?
Her father silently walked past and into the house with her mother and brother. Nobody came to answer her questions. Nobody came to comfort her, to dry away her tears. Night fell and still nobody came for her. Alone in the dark when the moon rose and she had no more tears to shed, she finally snuck inside and collapsed on her bed, still wondering... why?
Nothing spoilery about the actual story inside, but I talk about the novel structure a bit, and some people might still want to see how that develops on their own. Plus a comment about the latest part.
This was a part that I was most nervous about, and I could see how it might turn some readers away even if it works for the story itself.
I think it's safe to say now why the chapters are structured like they are. The first part of each will be a flashback that sets up the other 4 parts of that chapter in the present time. I have most of the past scenes already written, or at the very least the major scene in them written.
I've finished the major draft of chapter 3, so I'm staying on pace, just have to polish it up and make sure it fits with earlier details.
As usual, Hylian had already risen and dressed by the time Belsira could drag herself out of bed. The chill water in the washbasin shocked her to life, but she was still struggling with her bulky armor when Hylian slipped outside.
Bel tried to get comfortable in the armor, but she still had too many tender spots on her. When she shifted the leather and steel suit one way to relieve one sore area, she'd just aggravate another. She tried placing cloth pads to cushion those places, but they quickly bunched up and increased the irritation. The armorer was right, she'd have to just suffer with the pain until her skin toughened enough to withstand the rubbing and chafing.
She emerged from their room into the still morning air, and even with the sun barely above the horizon, she sensed a looming heat that would only get worse as the day wore on. She wandered through the camp heading for the officers' mess hall for breakfast.
Once there, she waited in line for her meal -- a bowl of beef and potato stew and a hard roll. She wasn't used to such heavy fare to start the day, but after her exertions yesterday, she knew her body would need the nourishment and energy.
She carried her meal over to the corner of the hall where Hylian sat, then scooted into the place across from her. Hylian was just scraping the remains of her stew from the bowl with her last piece of roll.
"You seem to be in a hurry this morning."
Hyl glanced at her empty bowl. "Oh, sorry, Bel. I should've waited for you."
"That's all right, Hyl. It's more that you seem distracted. Anything I can help with?"
"No, Bel dear. I'm just feeling restless this morning. I don't know why, but I can't keep still for more than a moment."
"You? I never thought I'd see the day!"
Hylian laughed. "Neither did I, dear. I thought these kinds of days were well behind me. But then, these are days when our expectations count for little."
The reminder of where they were and why quieted them both. Belsira ate her stew and contemplated the situation while she chewed. Hylian took her leave without a word and Bel knew enough to let her go -- anything that disturbed her mentor this much had to be serious. Bel just hoped there would be a way she could help.
She quickly finished her own breakfast, then headed for her place on the parade grounds.
As she stood at attention with the rest of the Fourth Legion, each company commander -- in her case, Portik -- counted the roll for his unit, then passed that number up the chain of command. After a bit of figuring at each step, Kirtok's chief aide Loric presented the general with a slip of paper.
Kirtok took the sheet, stepped forward. "Fourth Legion of Mardya, under the command of General Kirtok in service to His Majesty, King Hartan, hereby reports the presence of able-bodied troops in the number of six thousand two hundred and thirty-six. Company commanders, you may now dismiss your charges to attend their duties to our Sovereign."
In perfect unison, the two hundred or so commanders shouted "Yes, Sir!" then snapped around to face their soldiers grouped in precise blocks across the grounds. Belsira turned her attention to Portik as he called out, "Company, dis-missed!"
She added her own small voice to the booming chorus of "Yes, Sir!" coming from the entire legion, then she turned away on her left heel, snapped to attention, her back to Portik now, then relaxed with the other soldiers as they strolled off the parade ground.
As she walked toward her training area, she heard the thunder of Third Legion in the distance as they echoed the same procedure, followed shortly by the same from the undermanned Fifth Legion.
Belsira couldn't help feel the exhilaration coming from such a spectacle of unity. Never before had she been a part of something so large and important.
She arrived at the practice field ahead of the others in her guard. Waited for Portik and the rest to arrive, she took some practice swings with her short sword, testing the feel of her armor today. Not so bad except for the point of her right shoulder which still hurt when she raised her arm.
When Portik and the guards arrived, he assigned drills to the men before coming over to Belsira to instruct her.
"I see you're getting the feel for your sword now."
"I think so, Portik. At least I'm not as clumsy as I was at first."
"That's a good sign. Some of the men in the regular squads never do get the hang of it, just using the sword as a club more than anything else. That works against an unskilled enemy, but not against a practiced swordsman."
"I don't think I would win in any case."
"One-on-one, no, probably not. Fortunately, the goal here is to teach you enough defensive skills to keep you alive until help can arrive. That's something I can teach you. Your instinct will already be to block -- I'll show you how to do that much more effectively."
Portik then ran through a series of attacks, showing Belsira the most effective counter move, first taking each in slow motion, then slowly building the speed and strength of his own thrusts.
He taught her how to deflect rather than absorb his blows, to use his strength against him and force him off balance, to find the place to move where his next attack would be less effective. She found the techniques fascinating, especially when she really was able to deflect and parry even his strongest swings.
Then he started using combinations, and Belsira knew that she had a lot still to learn.
With them all in a drenching sweat, Portik called for a halt so they could drink and rest.
As Belsira downed her third cup of water, she noticed a commotion on the other side of camp.
"What's happening over there?"
Portik looked up. "Hmmm, seems that the Third Legion is moving out today. Thought they might, but I wasn't sure."
"They're leaving? Surely it will take them time to get ready."
"No, they're moving out now. See? The wagons are already loaded and making for the road. Over there, the units are forming up to join them."
Belsira took off running for the barracks.
"Belsira, wait! Where are you going?" Portik called out behind her.
She ignored his orders to come back, though. She had to find out where Hylian was. Did she know her legion was leaving so soon?
Panting and sweaty from her dash, Belsira burst into their room only to find Hylian's possessions gone, her bunk stowed. She bolted back outside and headed for the paddock.
"I need a horse!" she shouted at the attendant.
"I need orders from Kirtok or Portik, Lady Belsira. There's no riding scheduled for today."
"No orders, but I need a horse, now!"
Belsira focused her anger, directed it at the fence rail the attendant was sitting on, ripped out its cohesiveness. The attendant crashed to the ground.
She opened the gate, ran to the stable, found a horse already saddled, and hopped on. She was back out of the gate before the stunned attendant could react.
Galloping down the main camp causeway, she ignored the open-mouthed stares of the soldiers and officers. Her only thought was to find Hylian.
The tail end of the Third Legion's column was just leaving the camp grounds when she passed from between the buildings. Belsira quickly caught up with the long string of men and wagons making up the Third Legion. She galloped her horse along the side of the road, scanning the wagons for any sign of Hylian. She passed thousands of men and hundreds of supply wagons, panic rising within her that she wouldn't be able to find her teacher, her mentor, her friend.
Not until the very front of the procession did she find Hylian, riding alongside the driver on the front bench of the supply wagon.
"Hyl! Hylian! Wait!"
Hylian turned, her eyes wide with shock at Belsira's approach, but she signaled the driver to stop.
Belsira rode up to the wagon, dismounted, tied her horse to the wagon's tailgate, then jumped onto the bench beside Hylian. The driver urged on his horses so that they wouldn't hold up the rest of the column.
"What are you doing here, Bel? Kirtok will have your hide for this stunt."
"I don't care. I had to see you. Why didn't you come to say goodbye?"
"I... I'm sorry, Bel. This was a surprise to me too. I thought it might be easier if I just left."
"How would it be easier? I would've died if I hadn't seen you again!"
Hylian fussed with her worry stone, kneading it roughly in her hands. "I mean easier for me, Bel. I knew I'd lose control if I had to say goodbye to you, and I've spent far too much of my life trying to prevent that from happening at all costs."
"Oh." Bel watched as her friend struggled to maintain the hold on her emotions, breathing deeply, working her stone, clenching her fists.
"You're the best thing to ever happen in my life, Bel. This war makes me so angry that we can't continue to stay together in our little cabin, tend the garden, walk the woods. And I can't control the sorrow and sadness that comes from the thought that I may never see you again." Hylian leaned over, grasped Belsira in a fierce hug. Belsira could feel the quiet sobs of her friend. All she could do was hold Hylian with the same desperate force that she never wanted to relinquish.
"I'm sorry, Hyl, I didn't know."
"That's because I hold too much inside me, dear. I wanted to open up, but a lifetime habit is hard to break for an old woman like myself. And I am glad you came. I would have never forgiven myself for not allowing us to have this moment. Thank you."
Belsira came back to camp both happy and sad -- too distracted to notice much of the men staring up at her along the way. They knew who she was now, and all of their auras were tinged with unease, even a bit of fear, no doubt because of stories about people with wild talent. She had heard some of the fireside tales herself, all of them gross exaggerations of what could actually be done. She still had a hard time understanding exactly what she could do to help the legion.
No matter, help she would, and in whatever capacity she had, however limited.
First thing was first, though, she had to explain herself to Portik, and maybe even Samiel or Kirtok. Technically, she had rank over everybody in the Fourth Legion except for Kirtok and his Adjutant, Loric, but she could hardly shove her position around considering how very little military experience she had compared to even the lowliest foot soldier.
Yep, there by the stable was Portik, Kirtok, and the very angry attendant. Well, whatever they had to say or do to her, she could take it. Seeing Hylian before she left was worth whatever punishment they could deliver.
She drew up to them, and Kirtok gave her a stern look as she dismounted. She followed then general over to the side of the barn along with Portik.
"Young lady, just what did you think you were doing?" Kirtok asked.
"I was saying goodbye to Hylian. I hadn't had a chance to see her off."
"And I suppose that if you decided not to help us fight Relath, you'd go wandering off in the middle of the battle?"
"No, not at all! This was just a small personal matter -- between me and Hylian."
Kirtok waved his hand in the direction of the training fields. "And you don't think all of these men also have personal matters they'd rather be tending to? I suppose we should just let them attend to them as they choose, not care whether they are getting the proper training that they'll need to stay alive during the upcoming battles?"
"I didn't think it was that important. I was just gone a little while, and now I'm back. Just tell me what's next in my training and I'll do it."
Just then the attendant approached, addressed Kirtok. "Sir, the horse is lame. He was brought in so I could take a look at him when she..." He pointed his chin at Belsira.
"Will he be all right?" she asked, concerned that she had hurt him.
"He'll have to be destroyed, Lady."
"Oh, no! Poor thing, I didn't know!"
"Broken fore-leg now. I may have been able to treat the previous injury before your ride, but now... there's no hope."
Grief overwhelmed her. "I'm so sorry." She ran over to the horse, recognized now the pain and fear in his eyes. Her talent for detecting emotions didn't work with animals, she had to rely solely on visual and physical clues.
Kirtok approached from behind as she rubbed the horse's nose. "As terrible as this is -- we need every horse possible in the coming campaign -- it does present a unique training opportunity." He turned to Portik. "Can you provide the necessary reservoir?"
Impassive as always, Portik answered with a simple, "yes, Sir."
"Very well. Belsira, you will destroy this horse with your talent. It will be good practice for what you must do later."
"What?!" She turned on him, shocked and appalled by his suggestion. "I could never harm a poor creature like that. I'm sorry for what I did, but that's no reason to do such a horrible thing!"
"As horrendous as it may seem, it's a common tactic in battle -- remove your enemy's advantages. One of the biggest is cavalry. Usually, the opposing talent is providing a shield, but if that cover ever falls, it is your duty to destroy his horses as fast as you can."
"But... but I can't!" She looked at the horse again. Such a noble creature, strong and proud.
"He has to be killed anyway."
Belsira wheeled on Kirtok, anger replacing shock. "It is not the same thing!"
Even Portik flinched at that outburst, but he backed his commander. "Still, it must be done, Lady Belsira."
"No it doesn't! Not by me, not by anybody."
She could easily detect the red anger of Kirtok as he answered. "Yes, it will be done, and it will be done by you, now!"
Belsira didn't dare tap his anger, that would just make things much worse if he found out she was manipulating him. But at the moment, her own anger was more than enough to help her stand her ground. "And just how are you going to make me?"
If the question gave him pause, he didn't show it. "As we talked about before, in the end, I really can't. If you want to trade hundreds, if not thousands, of those boys' lives," he pointed again to the training fields, "for one horse, you are welcome to make that decision. The enemy will not stop to consider your feelings as they charge down upon those brave men and slaughter them on the battlefield."
They locked gazes, but as Kirtok pressed his presence down upon her, she knew that he was right. But how could she bring herself to do this horrible, cruel thing? It was one thing to bring ruin and destruction down on inanimate objects, to weaken spears, turn hard ground into soft, weaken armor, but turning those destructive powers on a living creature? She knew how terrible that could be.
Nevertheless, her will succumbed to the necessity. There were thousands of lives at stake, and not just those of the soldiers. If she let those men down and they died under the onslaught of the enemy, their families would be next as Relath's forced ran unchecked throughout Mardya and elsewhere.
She turned away from Kirtok, faced the horse for the last time. "I'm sorry," she whispered, hoping he'd understand. Then she pulled all of her anger and hatred for what Kirtok made her do, focused it within herself.
How would she do this deed? How to make it as easy on the poor horse, and herself, as possible? She'd use his heart, stop the relentless beating that drove this massive creature through life. She reached out with her hand, and her mind, and projected the force of her anger into the horse. The poor thing bolted and screamed in terror and pain and tears burst forth from Belsira as sadness mixed with bitterness of her anger. She tried to make it quick, but she found herself wavering, her energy too weak to do the job properly.
Then Portik stepped in beside her, and like a lamp turned on in the night, he burst forth with a radiant anger and hatred that nearly burned her with its presence. But it was what she needed. She focused that power into the horse, forced herself to ignore the screaming and spasms of its body as she tore his heart to shreds in his chest.
Other horses in the stable and paddock added their terrified voices to the chorus, and at first, she was afraid that she was leaking this destruction onto them as well. But no, theirs was just an empathic reaction to the distress of one of their own. Belsira could feel that it would take every bit of her and Portik's energy to complete this task. Life fought for life, and this noble stallion would not go easily to his demise.
She pulled the last threads of her strength together to finish this, the horse was suffering too much at her clumsiness. With a last concentration, a cry that leapt forth from her soul and her lips, she crushed his heart and he dropped dead on the ground with a thud.
She could only stare at the carcass lying on the ground. She had no emotion left to mourn his death. Portik beside her was as passive and emotionless as ever -- not a trace of aura -- whether because she had drained him dry as herself, or because he had turned himself off as he had turned himself on, she couldn't tell.
Belsira turned to Kirtok. "I'm going back to my room." Not a question, nor a demand, just a statement.
He nodded his assent, but said nothing.
She walked through the camp in a daze. She had never drawn her emotions this low before. Every action and reaction was pure intellect, without a trace of feeling. When she found her way back and closed the door behind her, she stripped her armor and sweat-drenched clothes off automatically, pulled her nightshirt down over her head, and pulled back the covers of her bed. It wasn't even dinnertime yet, but she knew it was sleep, not food that would restore her now. As she adjusted her pillow to get comfortable, she found a slip of paper underneath.
I'm sorry I left without saying goodbye, but I'm hoping it will be easier this way.
It's not that I didn't want to tell you in person that I was leaving, just that I don't think I could've left knowing it may be the last time I ever saw you. However, our duties are bigger than our humble wants and needs. Don't forget how important you and your talent are to the people of Mardya and beyond -- you and I hold powers that may turn back the forces of tyranny. It may have never seemed that way while we were tending our garden, but it's always been true. That potential is the very reason you were sent to me for teaching, and why I have always emphasized control.
The time for control has passed, though, you must now find all of the potential within you. I don't know what your limits are, but I am sure that they are potentially greater than my own.
But that's not why I'm writing this note. Bel, you're more important to me than all of the kingdoms combined. If I would have seen you again, I probably would have taken you away from everything so that we could go home again, forget that the outside world even existed. You are the only family I've had in years, you're the daughter I never had, the granddaughter I never will have. I may have seemed like a stern taskmaster at times, but believe me, I've never been happier in my life. I only pray that you have been as happy with me.
I could tear this whole camp down with the sadness within me now. But I won't. We both have jobs to do, and I'm immeasurably proud of the young woman you have become, so I know you'll take your lessons with Samiel as seriously as you have with me. In the days before you leave, listen carefully to him -- he has much to teach you. He may seem gruff, but he truly does care about all of the people in his trust. Try to remember the vast responsibilities he has under these circumstances, and you may understand his methods.
I do not know Kirtok except through what I have heard and observed in these last few days. He appears to be honorable and competent. Do your best for him and I'm sure you'll have no problems.
Finally, Bel, do take care of yourself. I know fate is beyond either of our control, but I want you to come back home with me. Nothing would please this old woman more than to see you again strolling through the woods behind our cabin.
Belsira folded the note, buried it deep within her pack. As much as she may have wished, she just didn't have the energy to give to her sadness, nor even to the regret of that fact.
As Belsira shuffled around her room, packing her meager belongings into her saddle packs, she realized how familiar it all had become in ten short days. She could hardly believe her former life had ever been real -- the memories were so vague and distant.
It was probably her exhaustion. These had been a hard ten days, with barely even time to worry about Hylian and what she was doing. Belsira welcomed the monotonous drills, and the fatigue that carried away those negative thoughts.
But now they were pulling out of camp, heading south toward unknown dangers and battles. The Fourth Legion would have left sooner, Portik said they could have continued training on the road, but all of the supplies hadn't come in yet. She was staggered by how much food and other supplies the legion needed for its travels.
Fortunately, she didn't have to worry about details like that, all she had to do was prepare for her own small, yet important, role in this war.
She discovered that she actually preferred training with the sword, as tiring as it was. At least the fatigue was only physical. It was the training of her talent for the methods of war that brought real exhaustion to her mind and body. Falling asleep each night came far too easily for someone about to face such a terrifying future.
She folded and packed her three spare sets of day clothes, the heavy cloth garments that would go under her armor, then placed her leather pouch of personal belongings between all the clothes in the saddle bag to keep them safe. There was also the cold/wet weather gear, though it seemed unlikely she'd need it any time soon, so she placed that in the second saddle bag along with her hygiene kit with soap, combs, brushes and such.
Then she prepared her bedroll, taking the blankets from the bunk, rolling them up, then wrapping a weather-proofed leather cover around it and tying down the flaps. Next she carefully folded her light armor, which made a surprisingly compact bundle, then tied it to the outside of the second saddle bag, then covered it with the bag's generous flap. She'd need to keep it handy in case of battle.
Fortunately, she wouldn't have to worry about bulk supplies, so that her horse wouldn't be overburdened when it came time to do battle, not that she expected to be in the thick of the combat, but that Portik had drilled the need to always be ready into her these last few days. She was already starting to think like a warrior, imagining how she would slip into her armor at a moment's notice in case of ambush for instance.
Even so, this new life felt unreal to Belsira. It was as if living without Hylian's presence didn't count, that once this war was over and they were both back at the cabin, time would start again. Her mind demanded these terms in order to accept all of these drastic changes.
And despite all of her training for using her talent in combat, she didn't quite believe in that possibility either. Nothing she could do about it, however, so she followed orders as best she could, even when Kirtok forced her to destroy five more horses. It was no longer her choice about what she did, so why should it bother her?
So she finished packing, hauled her gear outside, then tied it down behind the saddle of the horse that had been assigned to her, a gentle brown mare named Raitha. Bel knew basic horsemanship, but would be hard pressed to control an unruly mount.
She walked the horse out to the parade ground to assemble with the rest of her unit. Portik stood next to his steed, and Belsira could just tell they had been together for a long time. Veddi, the captain's dapple grey, almost seemed to lean against Portik, and the man certainly held himself with a demeanor that gave the indication he had the strength to spare. Shouting order to his men, inspecting each of their own mounts with a practiced eye, looking for flaws in their packs or saddles.
Belsira still had a hard time thinking of this unit as her bodyguards. She had trained with them in unit drills designed to protect her, learning how to take protective cover within their formations, but she didn't feel a part of them. Despite Portik's earlier trick, after training they kept to themselves and let her go back to her room alone. There was simply too much difference to overcome, and even working closely with them, the same discomfort at having their emotions not only read, but used, arose as always.
She did develop a growing sense of respect for Portik. It was obvious his men did as well, there was rarely a problem with discipline or unit cohesion during the exercises. Each man knew his job, and performed it admirably. She came to appreciate what the common soldiers of the legion would have to put up with in combat, and that knowledge would probably come in handy when she was called upon to assist them.
She had seen very little of Kirtok the past few days. He must have been extremely busy with preparing the legion with its nearly seven thousand men for their journey. His chief aide, Loric, did spend a lot of time observing her progress, both with her battle talent training, and with her basic weapons and tactics training. He also spent long hours explaining battle strategy to her after dinner each evening. Loric wasn't as imposing, but he lacked Kirtok's charisma, however, and Belsira could barely maintain her attention for his lectures. Hopefully Kirtok would have time to explain in more detail what he expected of her once they were on the road.
"Guard, parade formation, dismounted!"
Belsira startled at Portik's order, but managed to remember where she was to go, leading Raitha to his place among the other horses, then standing at attention on the left side of her mare. The other soldiers took their respective places quickly and efficiently.
Portik turned to survey the rest of the legion's progress as they began forming up into the various units. The vast majority were foot soldiers, and would have to march to the front lines. Belsira thanked the gods that she would at least be able to ride.
"Looks like it will be a short while yet before we're ready to leave. Stand ready."
Just like Portik to want his unit sharp and prepared while everybody else was still trying to figure out where to go on the parade grounds. By the looks of things, they'd be standing there a good hour at least.
So Belsira took the time to watch the rest of the legion gather together. Besides the foot soldiers, there were about five hundred horse cavalry. They would be extremely important in battle, and one of her highest priorities for protection via her talent. She now knew all too well what havoc could be wrought in their ranks by talent unleashed.
Almost as impressive was the tremendous number of supply wagons lining up along the perimeter. All last night, the camp workers transferred provisions from the warehouses to the wagons. Portik had told her that they would be hauling enough supplies to keep the legion self-sufficient for two weeks. Not only that, but a constant line of supply would be moved to the legion from here and elsewhere in the kingdom, not even considering what they would forage while on the move. Belsira couldn't even imagine the logistics, and this was the smallest legion going into the field from Mardya.
As she watched, order slowly replaced chaos on the field. Smart rows of soldiers stood where only a few minutes before was just a milling crowd. One by one the units pulled together. For some reason, Belsira found this much more impressive than the standard formations during training. For one thing, there was a palpable purpose behind this particular gathering. All that everybody had worked for was about to become real; they were going off to war.
And she could see it in their faces. There was none of the pride and bravado they had before when all they had to face was the disapproving eye of the officers looking for flaws in how their armor was fastened. There was fear in their eyes that she would've been able to notice even without the mass orange aura her talent allowed her to see. Even though she wasn't actively tapping this energy, she still had to knead her worry stone vigorously to drain away the pent up power.
She turned to look at Portik, but as always, he stood there impassive as he watched the rest of the legion. She could see the calculations running through his head about how he would have had everybody ready minutes earlier, but he still displayed no aura whatsoever. That fact alone scared her. How could a man not feel at least some apprehension at what was going to happen?
Finally, the milling mass of men and horses coalesced into the precise pattern of the final formation. And showing an uncanny knack for timing, Kirtok marched out of his office on the far end of the ground, mounted his black war horse, then rode to sit before his legion.
No speeches today. The look of pride on his face was more than enough to convey his feelings on this day. He simply raised his sword, then pointed it toward the south.
One by one, each unit turned, then began the long march towards the war. When it neared time for her unit to move, Portik turned to them. "Guard, mount!" In a single motion, even Belsira, they swung into their saddles. Then when it was their turn, the swung the horses to the south, and fell in behind a platoon of foot soldiers.
From the back of her mare, Belsira had a better perspective on the legion. Already, dust and distance obscured the frontmost units from her sight. When she turned around, she could see unit after unit falling into place behind them. When she had raced to catch Hylian, she hadn't even noticed the awesome spectacle of an entire legion on the move.
It was beautiful, even amidst the underlying ugliness of the purpose.
Steadily, the long snake of soldiers slithered through the south gate of camp and onto the main road heading for Gelfont, the major trade center in the southern district of Mardya. When Belsira herself passed between the two watch towers, her heart pounded in her chest -- another part of her life left behind, probably for good. Two weeks that now felt like a lifetime.
But she didn't look back, tried not to think about it. Unbidden, memories of Hylian filled her mind. She fidgeted with her worry stone, ran through every control exercise Hylian had ever taught her, but that just made the heartache worse.
Fortunately, the pace was slow for one on horseback, and her mare knew how to stay in formation on her own, so Belsira could close her eyes, blank her mind, and let the gentle sway of riding hypnotize her as she concentrated on her breathing.
She could still sense the excitement of the soldiers around her, worked to isolate herself from the emotional energy. Then, she worked on her own state, pulling her own emotions within herself, then sealing them away deep inside. Between inner and outer worlds, she achieved a calm that would sustain her through this journey.
When she finally opened her eyes again, the legion was well into the countryside. Behind her, no sign of the camp or city beyond.
Open grass fields swayed in the breeze around them. Widely scattered trees broke up the monotony, and far off to the right, she spied the angled roof of a farmhouse. Such a peaceful setting, yet marching right through the middle was an incredible array of potential destruction.
"Looks like we're just about there," Portik said as he rode beside Belsira.
"Where's that?" she asked.
"Mirskon. It's just a small farming community, but it will do for a first-night's camp."
"There's still three or four hours of light, isn't there?"
"Yes, but you can't march an army much farther than we have already, especially at the beginning of the journey when their walking muscles aren't developed yet. In a couple of weeks, we could probably go an hour or two more each day."
"Oh. Sitting up here, I didn't realize how tiring that must be. Even so, I'm glad we're stopping now."
Mirskon consisted of only a dozen buildings to the side of the road: inn, stable, market, mill, tavern, warehouse, silos, and so forth. A little further back from the road, Belsira could see one of the farmhouses scattered around the countryside. As the head of the legion came into the town, they turned to march toward this house, then spread out into a recently harvested field.
For the most part, soldiers just stopped and sat, resting from the march. When Belsira and her guards came upon the group, Portik told her to continue on toward the farmhouse where Kirtok was waiting for her.
"Come on in, Belsira, I'm sure you need the rest as much as the rest of us."
She dismounted her horse and gave her over to one of the stable hands after grabbing her packs, then followed Kirtok inside.
The house was simple, yet large enough to hold several people. The main room extended to the sloping ceiling above, and a hall to the right must have led to the living quarters.
"Your room is the second on the right, Belsira," Kirtok said, pointing down the hall.
"All right, thank you."
She wandered down the hall and into the room. It was obviously a younger girl's room, dolls on the dresser, flowers in the windowsill, bright covers on the bed. In it's own way, as impressive as the suite in the palace, especially compared to her simple room in Hylian's shack.
Belsira dropped her packs on the floor, not wanting to get any of the road dust on the furniture. Everything was neat as well, probably cleaned in anticipation of their arrival. Must have been a hurried departure, she could see a couple toys still peeking out from under the bed.
She reached down, and pulled out a small toy wagon, much like the ones hauling the legion's supplies, and a couple of carved wooden horses to go with it. She arranged them on top of the dresser, then carefully placed the thin leather leads and yokes from the wagon to the horses.
But as she fiddled with the leads, the rear left leg fell off the brown horse.
She picked up the leg, fearful that she had broken it, but saw that it had been broken before, and then somebody had tried to fix it with a small peg connecting the horse to the leg. But it was a weak fix, and looked like it would keep falling away as it had with her.
"The least I can do is fix it I suppose."
Belsira inserted the peg into the horses body, aligned the leg properly, then concentrated. Thought of the joy that these beautiful toys brought to the girl, allowed that same joy to permeate her own body.
When the joy was pure, her thoughts in tune with her purpose, she placed her fingers over the joint and began to knead the wood. First she loosened the fibrous material, then visualized the joining of these tendrils between the two pieces. Closer and closer they enmeshed, then she pulled them tight, into a new bond of wood unifying it into a new whole, stronger than the original.
When she was done, she set the little brown horse on the dresser to be sure that all four legs were level with the surface. Perfect.
She then fastened the harness to it again and arranged the set on the dresser. It was a fine piece of work for a farmer's daughter to own. Either they had purchased it in the city as a gift, or there was a fine craftsman in this small town. Probably the former if the leg had never been properly fixed.
Belsira went back into the main room of the house, and found a couple of cooks busy preparing the officers' mess for the evening. Smelled like the typical stew that she had had so often back at the training camp. The fare may be boring, but she had to admit that it was filling and nutritious enough to keep up her strength despite all of the hard work she had been doing.
She wandered outside to see how the rest of the legion was getting on. Already a huge tent city was sprouting from the empty field behind the house. The smell of food permeated the air outside as well, as she could see the smoke of dozens of cookfires spread throughout camp.
And as she wandered through the tents, she could see that most of the men were grateful for the respite from the march. Many tended to blisters or other soreness in their feet, making her very glad she was one of the few in the legion with a horse. Ironically, it was because of her presence on the battlefield that very few horse cavalry would be used. Horses were too vulnerable a target for the opposing battle talent, and if she spent too much effort protecting them, she'd potentially leave the men vulnerable to attack.
Despite their grumbling about sore feet, just about every man had a smile for her as she passed through the camp. She was far from another anonymous soldier in the legion, so everybody knew who she was. She was also among one of the very few women in the legion. There were perhaps another thirty or so spread among the combat units.
Actually, every person in the legion was part of a combat unit. They didn't have the luxury of purely support personnel, so cooks, blacksmiths, armorers, supply masters and various other tasks were performed by people from regular units. The only significant exception was the supply-wagon drivers, who would take their wagons back to supply depots for another load once the one they carried was used up. Already a handful of empty wagons were waiting to go back to Letham for another load and this was only the first day on the road.
Not much happening in the camp, so Belsira started walking toward the village. As she passed the farmhouse on her way, Portik came out and joined her.
"Going into town?"
"Yes, I just want to look around before it gets dark."
"I'll come along then."
Bel shrugged. No reason he shouldn't.
As they approached, Belsira saw several soldiers in a cordon between the village buildings and the camp. She looked at Portik.
"Off limits except to authorized personnel on official business."
"Oh, I didn't know. Is it all right if we go in?"
"Certainly. This is primarily so that the soldiers don't disturb the populace. Far too many soldiers for any of the businesses here to handle them all. I don't expect any trouble this soon, but after a few days, some of them will get restless I'm afraid. Kirtok would rather head off that possibility before it happens however."
They passed through the checkpoint and Belsira headed for the general store, Portik right behind.
When she entered, there were several soldiers roaming through the store, picking and stacking supplies near the door. She looked again to Portik.
"Supplies for the legion. We can never quite supply everything we'll need from the various depots, so we have to forage a bit from each community as we pass."
She nodded, but when she looked around, the growing pile seemed to be much more than a "bit." The only items left on the shelves were generally either luxury items or purely decorative. Other items like cloth, foodstuffs, utensils, and tools were constantly being added to the pile by the dozen men in the store. The shop owner fretted the whole time, and Belsira could well understand with most of his stock about to be taken away.
She turned her attention to the ignored trinket shelves and examined some of the pieces. There were a couple of carved farm animals -- cows, pigs and such -- lining one shelf.
"How much?" she asked the shopkeep.
He shot a nervous glance at Portik before answering. "Three coppers apiece for the smaller animals, five for the larger."
"Hmmm, all right, I'll take two cows, three pigs, and three sheep." She picked them off the shelf and placed them on the counter.
The shopkeep looked upward, mumbled his calculations to himself, then declared, "twenty-eight coppers, or two and four."
Belsira reached into her belt purse and gave the keep three silvers. He wrapped the small animals and placed them in a small draw bag then gave her eight coppers in change. "Thank you, Dear Lady."
"Thank you, Sir. These should be perfect."
She took the bag and headed back outside, leaving the soldiers to finish their gathering.
Portik followed. "We could have added those to the bill for you, you know."
She looked at him, puzzled. "Nonsense, these have nothing to do with the war effort, and I can well afford them. Besides, it's nothing compared to the business he's going to do today."
Portik snorted. "Unfortunately, your two and four is all the coin he'll see today. We pay him with a note authorized by General Kirtok. Once the war is over, all of the notes can be redeemed throughout the kingdom. The total amount will be so much, however, that the treasury will be lucky to be able to cover half of the total, more likely a third."
"What? He's losing all of that merchandise without compensation?"
"He's not the only one, Bel. Look around."
Belsira looked around the village, and at practically every building, a detail of soldiers was loading a wagon full of goods from the inhabitants of Mirskon.
"But what will they do if we take all of this away from them and they don't get paid for it?"
"We try not to take too much, but the ensuing hardships are unavoidable. Most people understand the need, however. Better than losing their freedom to Relath. I have to admit that I was happy to see that you paid for your purchase. I've seen too many officers or talents that would happily charge such things to King and Country. It's certainly your privilege since you're risking your life for these people, but I'm glad to see you're different anyway."
"Thank you, Portik. Hyl brought me up well. I could no more imagine not paying for my own purchases than I could...." She realized that she was about to say hurt somebody but knew that was no longer true. She had pledged to do far more than that.
She looked around once more, but seeing so much of these people's hard-earned possessions being piled into wagons made her uneasy.
"I might as well head back to the house. There's not as much here to see as I thought."
"As you wish, Lady Belsira."
They walked back in silence. Once at the farm house, dinner was ready, so they sat at the main table with the rest of the top officers of the legion. Most of the table talk was about logistical matters that needed to be smoothed out in the days to come, but Belsira didn't pay much attention.
All she could think about was how her basic, guiding moral principles had been undermined by this war. Hylian had always taught her to use her talent only to benefit herself and others. But if she had already made the decision that using her talent was all right when it came to killing others, why did it matter if she paid for those little animals when it was perfectly acceptable to let the legion pay?
She finished her meal, then left the room silently as Kirtok and his staff continued their deliberations. When back in the bedroom, she unrolled her package on the bed, then unwrapped the different animals that she had purchased.
Carefully, she arranged them on the dresser beside the horses, then closed the door.
Belsira felt silly as she realized she hadn't really bought the toys for the little girl that lived here, but for herself. She'd leave them here all right, but for one night at least, they were all hers, and she wasn't going to waste the opportunity.
Dredging up distant memories, she re-enacted scenes from her childhood where she'd pretend to be the animals as they had fantastical adventures in faraway lands. She whispered their lines, moved them around the dresser top, and allowed her imagination to run free. Fortunately, nobody disturbed her as she played with the little animals right until the last waning light of the evening.
With barely enough light to see anymore, she finally arranged the creatures in a pleasing array for the little girl to find after Belsira left with the legion. As she lay in bed to sleep, she thought that if nothing else, this war would leave a small present for a little girl that Belsira would never meet.
As usual these days, Belsira was in her room when the wagon pulled up before her home. She peeked through the curtains and watched the old woman dismount and greet her father as he exited his workshop.
He was shrouded in an anxious pale-green aura, but the woman had none, so she was sure this was the person her parents had sent for after the accident. She lost sight of them as they entered the front door. Through the wall, she could hear the muffled sound of her mother's voice join the conversation, but she was unable to hear the words.
After three weeks of fearful neglect from her family, Belsira was almost glad to be going away with somebody else. Her mother still fixed her meals, and she had been allowed to go wherever she pleased, but she preferred to keep to herself in her room.
"Belsira, could you come out here, honey?" No matter how she tried, her mother couldn't disguise the waver in her voice when she talked to her daughter.
Belsira slipped quietly into the kitchen and examined the old woman as everybody waited in uncomfortable silence. She was taller than Bel's mother, with long silver hair tied into a ponytail behind her. Her pale blue eyes smiled from behind deeply lined eyes, but Belsira still couldn't detect an aura that would confirm or deny the impression.
Her father cleared his throat. "Bel, this is Hylian. She'll be your teacher from now on like we discussed. You'll be going to live her in her cabin out back of Crossley down the road."
Hylian smiled and bent down to greet her new charge. "Hello, Belsira, I've heard a lot about you."
That couldn't be good, so Belsira shied away.
Bel's mother broke another awkward stretch of silence. "I'm sure Hylian and you have a long journey ahead of you, so perhaps you'd like to get started?"
Belsira didn't need to be told twice. She retreated from the kitchen and went to her room. She efficiently pulled her clothes from her dresser and stuffed them into the trunk and travel bag her father had put there the previous night. With the essentials packed she looked around the room. She decided against taking her collection of clay animals on the top of her dresser and on the shelf above her bed, they might get broken on the trip, and besides, she could always make more.
She also decided against bringing the rag doll propped against her pillow. For some reason, Wessa no longer provided the comfort that Belsira used to cherish.
When she turned to the door of her room, she saw her parents and Hylian standing beyond the door.
"I'm ready," she said in a voice too small for the occasion.
Hylian's eyes flicked to the bed and a hint of yellow surrounded her for a brief moment. "Very well. Your father can get your bags. Come." Belsira placed her small hand in Hylian's outstretched hand and let the leathery warmth lead her from her room, from her home, and into the waiting wagon.
Bel's father lifted the trunk and bag into the back while her mother held back in the doorway.
"Good-bye, honey," he said. He even managed to give her a light kiss on the cheek. "Take care of yourself, Bel."
"I will, father," she said, eyes focused on the tail of the horse in front of her.
"I think Tam is at Jes's place..."
"That's all right," she said quickly to cover her father's embarrassment. Tam hadn't spoken a word to her the entire time and had rushed from the room whenever she entered.
Belsira so wished to be able to take everything back so that it never happened, but knew she couldn't. She didn't even hear the last few words between her father and Hylian before the woman clucked to the horses and they were underway.
She fixated on the swaying tail, ignoring the stares of Aberley's townspeople as the wagon passed through the square and onto the main road. She tried not to think about what she was leaving behind and about where she was going. Whatever life with Hylian would be like it had to be better than the utter rejection she had experienced over the last three weeks.
She couldn't blame her family, though, especially Tam. She was actually surprised that they had let her stay in the house with them.
"It's not your fault, Belsira."
How could this old woman say such a thing, she wasn't there, she wasn't the one who had to leave her home, her family because... because...
"You must believe me, dear, there was no way you could have known what would happen. Talent as strong as yours is rare. How could you understand the consequences of such power when you've never seen it before?"
Belsira had nothing to say to that.
"Don't worry, though. That's why you're coming with me -- so I can teach you to control your talent, understand your abilities."
She didn't want to understand them, she wanted them to go away.
"For example, there was never any danger of you hurting any of your family or friends. It's impossible to use talent on people, at least directly."
What about Tam, though? How could she have hurt him any more than she did?
Hylian's offer startled Belsira out of her reverie. "Huh, what?"
The woman was holding out a rock on a string to her. "I think you need this more than I do right now."
Bel reluctantly reached out and took the offering. "What is it?"
"It's a worrystone. Go ahead, put it on."
She did as she was told, then examined the stone more closely. At one end of the almost coal black stone was a smoothly molded hole for the string. The rest of it was strangely misshapened, almost like the fingermarks in a lump of clay.
"Whenever you feel your talent overcoming your control, just direct the energy into the stone, work it in with your hands. Stone can absorb a lot of energy before it starts to break apart. Of course negative emotions weaken it faster, but even so, I've had this one for nearly ten years."
Belsira rubbed the stone between her fingers. Nothing happened, but this wasn't like her butterflies -- she felt no joy to give to the stone. Neither did she feel the anger that had gotten so horribly out of control, she would never use that feeling on anything ever again.
As much as she tried to hide it from herself and others, though, she experienced a deep sadness, a longing for things to be the way they used to be.
With the thought, came the warmth in her hands, in the stone. She rubbed again, and this time the rock stretched and slid beneath her fingers. A ridge that used to be here was now there. Once started, the flow continued unchecked, breaking her little heart with the sadness she shouldn't have to endure. She squeezed the stone between her tiny fists, crushed and reshaped the stone, emptied and released the despair. Her tears, almost unnoticed, fell onto the stone, and she kneaded them into the stone until they disappeared.
When she was finished, the sadness was forgotten, her tears dried, her situation a distant concept as she sat next to Hylian, eyes closed, fists clenched around the saving stone.
She heard Hylian say, "Poor child," but there was nothing left in her at the moment to care what it meant or why Hylian thought so.
After two weeks of travel, Belsira had become accustomed to the pace and routine of the road. She could trust her mare to stay with the formation, and she could either meditate on her control exercises, or even sleep in the saddle for a snatch of time.
Not much else to do, the terrain was still flat and open -- either fields or farms -- and the warm, dry, dusty conditions weren't conducive to much more than silent trudging. That suited her fine. The more she could retreat within herself, the less she had to think about what was to come.
"Good day to you, Belsira."
"Huh? Oh, good morning, Cayrn." The young man, one of her guards, had ridden up alongside.
"I hope you pardon the intrusion, but I noticed that except for Portik or Kirtok on official business, nobody talks to you much. So I just wondered if you'd like some company for a while."
Not really, she thought, but he had always been nice enough to her these last few weeks, so she didn't turn him away. She smiled, noticed a light blue aura arise from him as he smiled back.
"Sure, I'd like that."
He hesitated, probably because he hadn't thought of anything beyond his opening, so she started. "Where are you from, Cayrn?"
"I'm originally from Grendon, but my family moved to Fletchton when I was fifteen."
"Fletchton? That's not far from Aberly, where my family lives."
"I've been there a few times about three or four years ago, riding along as my father delivered grain to the mill there. Small town. Very nice. I don't remember seeing you there, though."
"No, I haven't lived there since I was eight. That's when I went to live with Hylian, so she could teach me about my talent."
"Ah. That must have been tough."
Belsira quickly washed away the feelings that came with that subject. "No, not really. Living with Hylian has been wonderful."
Cayrn at least had the sense not to pursue that line, and he thought a moment for a new subject.
"Have you ever been this far south before?" he asked.
"No, never traveled much beyond Aberly or Crossley. I never realized that a city could be as big as Letham."
"That's why I joined the legion, I wanted a chance to travel, see the rest of the land, not just my home province. It's been a lot of hard work, but I've been all over Mardya. One time, I was even part of a diplomatic contingent to Thantium, part of the honor guard."
"No offense, Cayrn, but isn't that unusual for somebody so young?"
The young man laughed at that. "Yes, I suppose so. I'm twenty-two, though I know I look younger, but I've been in the legion four years now, and I've worked hard to get where I'm at now."
Belsira caught the pride in his voice, but couldn't resist teasing. "I don't see any insignia on your armor yet." She smiled to make sure he didn't take it the wrong way.
Oh, there's more to this job than rank. Being part of a Talent Guard is one of the most elite positions in the legion. Even Kirtok's personal guards aren't as highly trained as we are, after all, if he fell in battle, Loric could step seamlessly into his place. There is no replacement for you, Lady Belsira."
Belsira blushed, not at the implied compliment, but because of yet another reminder that her status had little to do with anything beyond an accident of nature. Cayrn could at least point to his own hard work and training when talking with pride at his position. While she had also worked hard to manage her talent and gain the kind of control that made her useful to the legion, it was solely born of necessity, not her own wants and desires.
Cayrn however, didn't notice her look away, and continued. "And I'm especially honored to have been chosen by Portik for this duty. I don't think there's a company commander in all of Mardya with his reputation as a leader."
"Portik? Really? He seems rather... I don't know... bland."
Cayrn laughed out loud at that description. "Yes, I suppose that fits, though don't tell anyone I said so! No, it's not his charisma that makes him such a good leader. He not like Kirtok at all in that regard. No, it's just his drive for perfection, his demand for the best from each of us. And he doesn't have to scream or jump up and down to get it from us either."
"I noticed that. When he gives an order, it just seems to be best to follow it."
"Yes, that's it exactly. A combination of trusting that he knows what's best, his experience, and well... I just don't ever want to disappoint him. The thought that he would believe I haven't given my best is just too much to bear."
Belsira found herself fascinated by Cayrn's take on his commander. She had felt much the same way, but since she hadn't been able to pinpoint why she reacted to Portik the way she had, there was always a level of discomfort when dealing with him.
That, and the pronounced lack of aura about him. The only other person with that much emotional control that Belsira had seen was Hylian. But that was for a very good reason; if a talent didn't have control, life became nearly impossible.
"One question, Cayrn. If Portik is so good, why is he only with the Fourth Legion?"
"That's a good question. He's a far better guard captain than Natairden of the First or Treshem of the Second. I think most of it is loyalty to Kirtok -- they've worked many years together, and know each other very well. Part of the reason is also personality. Portik won't play the kind of politics that one needs to get a job with the First or Second Legions. Neither will Kirtok for that matter."
"What do you mean?"
"They'd both rather stay as part of the Fourth Legion, which is largely non-existent except in times of war like now, where they can maintain absolute control over their own standards of conducting business. The only permanent postings to this legion otherwise is the officer corps, the general's guard, and the Talent Guard.
"But don't think that we're unprepared because of that. I've been watching the training that the rest of the soldiers have been receiving, and even though they are only reserves compared to the standing core of the first two legions, I'd like our chances man-to-man against any legion in any kingdom."
Cayrn's confidence was good to hear, but Belsira still regretted that his theory would really be tested, and probably soon. She didn't doubt that he was right when it came to the soldiers and their training, just to whether she'd be able to provide them with adequate backup as the legion's battle talent.
Fortunately, topics drifted back to lighter fare as they rode on, and time seemed to pass quickly until the mid-day break from the march. As usual, Portik put Belsira and her guards through even more drills.
"Regarth, close formation! You're leaving a gap I could drive a herd of mountain buffalo through!"
Actually, she felt incredibly claustrophobic with all of the guards crowded around her like this. She left her own short sword firmly in its scabbard, more afraid that she'd poke one of her own men.
That wasn't good enough for Portik. "Belsira, draw that sword! Remember, you're your own best last line of defense. No matter how well I drill these men, nobody will care about saving your life as much as you do."
She pulled out her sword, then took a defensive stance among the men.
"All right, men, box formation," Portik called. "Cayrn, you'll be back."
"Yes, Sir," Cayrn replied.
With Belsira in the middle, Cayrn stood back to back with her, while Portik armed himself with a pike and crouched in front of her facing forward. The other twenty-four soldiers in her guard force formed up in a diamond shape around the center formation. The four points of the diamond and two men on each of the four sides armed with pikes, and three men armed with swords on each side standing between the pikemen. Quite a formidable array of steel that an enemy would have to penetrate to reach her.
A contingent of ground soldiers from the legion "attacked" the formation in slow motion, banging swords, shields and pikes in an incredible cacaphony of sound even at this practice speed.
Belsira's task was to tap the auras of only the attacking men and ignite a bale of hay a good stone's throw away from the battle. Besides defending her, the exercise was designed to help her tune out the immediate action enough to continue her duties as battle talent for the legion.
Even without any tricks to increase their emotions, there was enough energy among the attackers to ignite the bale, if only she could concentrate for a long enough moment to focus. The men around her were doing a good job of play acting the battle, however, with men on both sides "falling" creating an ebb and flow that was quite distracting. She was about to succeed, however, when she sensed Cayrn go down behind her.
She turned, swinging her sword so hard that the soldier who had taken down Cayrn had to quickly raise his shield to avoid the blow. The clang of her sword on the shield shocked her into stillness.
"Halt!" cried Portik, and all the men on both sides instantly stopped their mock combat. He turned to Belsira. "What happened?"
A simple question, but at first she didn't know the answer. Then when it came to her, she blushed in embarrassment.
"I'm sorry, Captain," she said. "The battle lust that I was channeling must have overwhelmed me temporarily. I felt Cayrn go down behind me, and I just reacted."
Portik considered what she said for a moment. "Your instinct was a good one, Belsira, but I expect more than that from you or anybody else here. That's what this training is for, to show you and everybody else here that there is no substitute for knowing exactly what you are doing at all times."
She bowed her head, chastened by his words. She wanted to explain that she was concentrating on other things than the immediate battle, which was her duty, but that answer seemed so inadequate when facing Portik like this. He wasn't angry, didn't show disappointment with her performance, yet every fiber of his being conveyed that he fully expected her to be able to handle both chores at once.
But she also got the feeling that he believed she was capable of all he asked of her, and she didn't want to abuse that faith in her.
"I'll do better next time, Captain."
He nodded, called for the formation again, then they tried the exercise once more.
Then three more times before she was able to successfully light the bale on fire while following in detail the battle around her.
When the legion was once again on the second leg of the day's march, she felt pride in her accomplishment, and rode in silent contentment.
Portik came alongside.
"You did very well today, Belsira."
"Thank you, Portik. I think I'm getting used to things now."
"Of course, you'll have to do much better by the time we face a real enemy, but I think we can get you ready."
Her smile disappeared. She couldn't detect any malice, but why would he compliment her, then instantly tell her she still wasn't good enough.
"During the first exercise, you reacted far too strongly to Cayrn's fall."
"I'm sorry, Portik, I didn't realize what was happening."
"You'll have to be careful of that. The more you work with these men, the more you will come to care for them. But you always have to be aware that at any moment, they may be killed right before your eyes. Unfortunately, you or I haven't the luxury to mourn their deaths until much later, if at all."
Belsira hesitated. "I don't know if I can remain that stoic when the time comes, Portik. I've never witnessed anybody dying before my eyes. And you know as well as I do that the emotional burst from a death, particularly a violent death, may be overwhelming."
"I know, Bel. But you must learn to see it as no more than another source of energy for your talent, and channel it outside of yourself as quickly and efficiently as you can."
They rode in silence for a couple minutes as Belsira tried to absorb what Portik had said. Then she turned to him. "How do you do it, Portik? How do you not care what happens to the men around you?"
That was a question that Portik didn't seem prepared to answer. Even when he finally did, he didn't look directly at her.
"It's not that I don't care, Bel. It's that I can't afford to react as if I do. There's far too much at stake to allow personal feeling to interfere. Not when I'm training you and the men, nor when we're embroiled in battle."
She had nothing to say to that. At least she understood him a bit better, knew part of the reason why he never projected an aura that she could detect. But what price did he pay for such control? For somebody with talent, it became a tiresome yet necessary requirement for everyday living, and she knew well the strain it was to maintain.
But here was a man who did the same, but for completely different reasons, and without the means to channel any stray emotions away from himself. Belsira had the constant companion of her worry stone.
Bel finished washing up, then dumped the basin of water outside her tent. Not much water to clean with, especially with her long hair, but she managed to eke out a good washdown with the help of a couple of rags.
It wasn't as if everybody else wasn't under the same restrictions. Supplying enough fresh water for five thousand people on the road was one of the trickiest tasks for the quartermaster. Even when they camped by a river, the only benefit was that the barrels could be filled -- no one was allowed to bathe in it. Kirtok wanted to be very careful not to spoil the land he was trying to protect.
So Belsira didn't complain, just did the best she could with what she had. Unfortunately, she couldn't use her talent on herself to untangle her hair, so she had to comb out the inevitable knots before going to bed. That was fine as well, because it gave her a good opportunity to meditate. She blew out the lantern in her tent, then began the process of disentangling her hair.
She took deep breaths, eyes closed in the darkness, and allowed her senses to extend outward. She heard the footfalls of men still about in camp, as well as the regular rhythm of the guard that Portik always posted for her at night.
She also sought the auras of people, trying to extend her sensitivity to the emotions of others. She'd have to work at extended distances in battle, so the more she could seek out any available energy, the better she'd be.
But there was very little to find at this time of night. Perhaps a bit of anger at a night's gambling loss, or some good cheer as friends talked around a camp fire, but nothing intense.
Or was there?
At the edge of her senses, a darkness loomed. She turned her head, tried to find the direction of the aura. Black against blackness, though, so she found it hard to focus. It was still distant, so must be a strong hatred indeed for her to sense it so clearly.
And it built in her awareness, the person was coming closer then.
Should she warn somebody? She felt it likely he meant harm. But how could she prove it? What if it just a soldier who had just received a reprimand and extra duty? She knew that some high emotions showed through under those circumstances, and it usually came to nothing after the soldier had time to cool down.
But no, this was different. The blackness was all encompassing, and that was unusual.
And it came closer.
Now he stopped.
While repulsed by the flow of hatred, she was also fascinated by her ability to track this person as if she could see him on open ground rather than through numerous tents and minor auras of other people around the camp. There, to the left of the entrance to her tent, perhaps three rows over, the black man stood motionless.
Then he started moving again, more toward the left as she followed him with her head, her hair all but forgotten now. Eyes closed, she tracked his black aura as it swung toward the back of her tent, still about two tent rows away.
Now he approached again, but slowly, far more slowly than a walk. Sneaking around perhaps? But what was his goal? Most of the tents around her were officers tents. Kirtok's was in the other direction, though. Somebody seeking revenge for punishment handed out by a superior officer?
Perhaps she should report this.
Belsira opened her eyes, stood to go outside to tell Cayrn what was happening when the blackness rushed towards her tent, running now, swiftly closing the ground. She turned to face it again as the growing blackness overwhelmed her, then a she could hear something, felt a sharp stab of fear and pain coming from just beyond the rear wall of her tent.
Then the back flap rose up, and the blackness entered, and it finally had form, a man.
Light from outside dimly illuminated him before he again dropped the flap to the ground, but not before she saw the glint of steel in his hand, not a sword, but a long knife. Shiny with Cayrn's blood?
Her own sword was by her bed, useless to her now. The man took a moment to gather his bearings in the darkness, recognized her standing shadow at the other end of the tent.
And rushed toward her.
Instincts took over, she gathered her own anger at the intrusion, drew in his black hatred, combined the two, then sent them forward, focused on the blade.
He tackled her, his fist around the hilt crashing into her ribs and her without armor.
They tumbled to the ground, falling out through the front tent flap onto the ground outside in a great commotion. She rolled to get him off of her, but never lost her concentration on the main task.
She sucked the hatred out of him faster than he could supply it, sucked the will that he used to attack her, sucked any trace of joy he felt at accomplishing his mission, left no emotion or energy for him to tap for his own purposes.
Instead, she used them, focusing them into the knife planted against her body. She had already weakened the blade too much to penetrate her flesh, so now she used the blade and hilt as a reservoir for all of the hatred, fear, anger and triumph of this stranger.
She left nothing to chance, took all of his will, drained it into his knife. He lay still now beside her, unable to gather the will or need to move. She finished rolling him off of her, stood up, and gazed at the metallic powder on the ground that used to be his knife.
The commotion attracted other from the area, who rushed up and seized the assassin. Before Belsira could even explain, she sensed the pain and fear coming from the other side of her tent.
She jumped up, ran around to the other side, several soldiers following close behind. Cayrn lay motionless, but his intense terror showed the life still in him. Somebody brought a lantern, and they could all see the growing splotch of blood on his shirt above his belly.
"Surgeon!" called a soldier to the night, and two others immediately ripped open Cayrn's tunic and applied pressure to the wound.
Little good it did, the gash extended the entire width of his stomach, running diagonally from upper left to lower right. The assassin had done his job well.
Belsira took away some of the fear, attenuating the emotion but not eliminating it, focusing the energy into her worry stone. She didn't want to take away Cayrn's drive and energy to survive such a horrendous wound, but he needed to be calm to reach within himself for any inner strength he had.
He even managed to open his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Bel, I never saw him coming." Then he closed them again and retreated into his world of pain, fighting to survive.
"But I did," she whispered to herself. Why hadn't she called out to Cayrn, warn him that something was happening? She could still feel the absolute dark hatred directed at her. At her!
She backed away when the surgeon arrived to care for Cayrn, but his reaction was disheartening. Other soldiers arrived with a litter to carry him to the surgeon's tent, and with a moan and whimper, Cayrn was taken away.
Just then, Kirtok arrived, and Belsira realized that Portik had been by her side the entire time. His cool presence never registered with her among all of the nervous, frightened, and confused soldiers around her.
"What happened?" Kirtok demanded.
Portik faced the general, ramrod straight. "Assassin, Sir. One of my men was wounded. Belsira had to handle the situation herself."
Kirtok looked at her, his eyes peering into her soul. She could detect his anger, but it was controlled, just as his demeanor was. But apparently the anger wasn't directed at her; he turned again to Portik.
"You know that this is unacceptable. We didn't drag her from the back of nowhere just to get her killed before a single battle has been joined."
"Yes, Sir," Portik replied.
Kirtok turned on his heel, then marched off into the dark, leaving Portik and Belsira alone with... with the other twenty-three of her guards. When did they arrive? The whole experience was like a dream; she wasn't sure what was real anymore. All that felt real now was the palpable anxiety among the men that she could have detected even without her talent.
Portik turned to the men. "This is my fault, and I take full responsibility. Even though we're still several days away from any potential action, I should have considered that Relath would try to eliminate our remaining battle talents, even if they were under full protection of the legion. From now on, night guard will consist of five men in four shifts during the night. At no time is Lady Belsira to be without the protection of at least four of her guards, even in camp."
He picked the first five for tonight's duty, divvied the remaining shifts, then dismissed the rest.
"How are you, Bel?"
"I'm fine, I think. I'll have a nasty bruise where he tried to stab me, but he didn't break the skin."
"Can you tell me what happened?" They walked back around and into her tent where somebody had lit her lantern.
She thought about what had happened, and her guilt at not saying anything to anybody, wondered if she should mention it. But then she remembered Portik's matter of fact acceptance of the blame for his role in not posting enough guards.
"I felt his hatred long before he came close. At first I was mesmerized. How could anybody's hate be that encompassing? I could see him through the walls of the tent, through the bustle of the camp. But I didn't react, I only watched him come closer, wondering what his purpose could be. By the time he attacked Cayrn, everything happened too fast for me to do anything but fight him off with my talent."
Portik nodded, staring at the flame of the lantern. "In a way, this is very good. You've learned to react by instinct, to use your talent for a very specific action in a stressful situation. I think you're learning your lessons well."
Belsira jumped up, furious. "How can you sit there and talk about lessons when Cayrn is near death? What makes you so cold you don't care about your own men?"
A flicker, but only that, escaped from Portik at the accusation, far too fast for Belsira to even identify the emotion. He looked up at her.
"That's the nature of war, Bel. Today Cayrn, tomorrow Hersoth, the next day me, or you. There isn't time for mourning, or worry about things we cannot control. Cayrn is under the care of the best surgeon in the legion, if it's his fate to live, he's in the best possible hands to make sure that happens."
She wanted to scream. How could he take this all so calmly? She kneaded her worry stone relentlessly, trying to drain her own emotions away.
"We have to move on, Bel. The only way either of us can make Cayrn's sacrifice mean anything is if we both learn something from this night. I was caught far too unaware of the dangers here so far within our homeland. I let the illusion of normality lure me into complacency.
"Likewise, you've learned to trust your instincts, to let yourself go when it becomes necessary to do so. You've also learned that if you sense something amiss, you should tell me or one of the guards. Your ability is useful for more than just fighting, Bel."
Right now, she wasn't much interested in contemplating her talent.
"What's going to happen to Cayrn?"
"The surgeon will do his best to sew up the wound and repair the damage. We'll then send him back to the previous village with one of the empty wagons so he can recover."
She looked Portik in the eyes, if she couldn't read his aura, she'd at least try to read his soul. "Do you think he'll make it?"
Portik met her glance, paused. "I honestly don't know. He's a strong lad, but the wound was deep, and there's no telling which organs may have been damaged. Billick's a genius with the knife, though, so Cayrn may survive."
He dropped his gaze, shuffled toward the flap to leave.
"At least I dearly hope so," he said to the darkness, then slipped into the night.
Belsira wandered around camp, bored and worried. The Fourth Legion had reached the southern city of Gelfont, and was now parked on the outskirts, taking two days to rest and regroup before the final leg of the march that would likely take them into battle. Horse-relay messengers were reporting increasing activity to the south and west less than a week's march away.
But nobody was allowed to go into the city except for gathering supplies or other official business. Belsira was especially restricted to camp in light of the recent assassination attempt. Security would be far too hard to guarantee in the bustle of Gelfont.
And Kirtok didn't want to exhaust the soldiers, so training was limited to a couple of hours in the morning. For a legion used to almost a full day of either marching or training, this excess time was difficult to fill with the usual pastimes.
Everywhere Belsira walked, soldiers were gaming in one form or another, many of them gambling away much of their pay. She found that act depressingly fatalistic, and she could see the growing melancholy around her.
But she didn't know what she could do about it except offer her own smiles and good cheer, however forced, man by man. Followed by her ever-present contingent of guards, she walked, and talked, with as many of the men as she could.
And her wandering honestly pleased her despite the circumstances. This was the first opportunity she had had to get to know more than a small circle of soldiers who were either her guards or ones they trained with. For the first time, the legion became a group of individuals to her instead of a mass of men.
And women. There were perhaps thirty women in the legion as soldiers, several of them in the horse ranks. Belsira promised the cavalry that she would take care to watch over their horses in battle. She could see the special bond between the horse soldiers and their steeds, and there was nothing worse to them than the specter of wild talent being unleashed on their animals. She knew all too well that their fears were well founded.
"How are you, Brent?" she asked of one of the archers.
"Fine, Lady Belsira. I'm just giving the bows a last check. Don't want any surprises."
"Good. I'll be by later to strengthen the wood for you. Make sure your men are in high spirits."
"Of that you can be sure, Lady!"
With talent on the battlefield, archers weren't of much use since even a slight touch of destructive energy would render the bow too weak to bend properly, but with some positive energy put into them, and careful use, a few well-timed shots could make a considerable difference to a battle, so there was always at least a small contingent of thirty or forty men.
Mostly there were the foot soldiers, armed either with sword or pike. Belsira never failed to be awed by the sight of seven thousand men in tight formation bristling with steel. There were some formations that she was sure could never be penetrated by mortal man.
That's why each side had talents.
With the right focus of energy in a critical location, a talent could weaken the weapons or armor of the opposition, allowing for a breakthrough that could collapse a well-formed line. Kirtok drilled the legion often with Belsira beside him, so he could show her how the ebb and flow of battle might proceed.
At first, she wondered how anybody could follow the complex moves and mixture of order and chaos that is a battlefield, but under Kirtok's tutelage, she was slowly learning to see what he saw. But would it be enough in the heat of battle when he would most likely be too busy to hold her hand? No way to know, and no way to turn back now, so she could only hope so.
She felt better and better about her chances, though, as she walked among the soldiers. Despite their anxiety, there was also an underlying confidence that they were ready for what was to come. Kirtok made sure that it was true, too.
He not only worked them hard in training, he made sure to convey the reasoning and purpose of each exercise or maneuver. He needed to trust that they could carry out his orders as much as they needed to trust that he would give them the best opportunity for victory and life.
If only the war could be decided by simply comparing who had prepared for it the best. Belsira was sure that no legion in the world could compare to Kirtok's Fourth right now. If only she was as confident about the legion's battle talent.
In the open common area in the middle of the tent city, the men were holding a wrestling competition, pitting the best from each company. Clouds of dust rose from the solid ring of people around the combatants, and she couldn't see a thing.
"Lady Belsira, would you like to join us?" Grenden, one of her guards off duty at the moment, beckoned her from the top of a table on the periphery of the spectators.
"Sure, Gren." She gave him her hand and he pulled her alongside him. "Thank you."
The view still wasn't good, but at least she could see some of the action. The current match was just ending with a pin, though, so she had to wait until the next pair entered the ring.
One soldier she recognized instantly -- big Larth of Green Company. She didn't recognize the other, announced as Worvall of Third Cavalry, but he was much smaller. The referee, Loric, signaled the start.
At first, they circled each other. Obviously Worvall didn't want to get in the clutches of Larth, and she didn't blame him. With a quick move, Worvall rushed to his left, then jumped right to catch Larth from the side. He still wasn't able to bring the big man down, but neither could Larth gain a good hold or leverage to throw his opponent.
Finally, Worvall managed to hook a leg around Larth's, then pull him down, but unfortunately, Larth twisted at the last moment enough to land squarely on the other man. Belsira could hear the "oof" even over the roar of the crowd.
Still, Worvall didn't let go, and despite being on top, Larth couldn't twist enough to get a hold.
So he used his greater bulk to a different advantage. He planted his hands to the ground behind him, and with great effort, lifted both of them about a hand's width off of the ground.
Then let go.
Worvall's eyes bugged with the second impact of his massive opponent.
Larth repeated the maneuver, and Belsira wondered if the other man could even breathe now. Still he didn't let go, nor did he dare despite the circumstance. If he let go his hold, Larth would be free to turn and pin him to the ground.
Again Larth crashed on top of the smaller man.
The end was obvious to just about everybody now, but they still roared their approval as Worvall continued to hold on. She saw as he slowly worked his arms from around Larth's midsection to higher up the man's torso. If he could get ahold of Larth's arms, the bigger man would no longer be able to lift himself up to slam his opponenent yet again.
But with another crash, Worvall's strength gave out and his hold fell away. He wasn't even able to resist as Larth turned around to apply the pin to officially end the match.
The throng roared applause and accolades to both contestants as Loric raised Larth's hand in victory. Belsira herself shouted cheers to Worvall as he left the ring, holding his ribs in discomfort, but clearly not injured seriously. She could detect a very pleased aura coming from Worvall, even in defeat, after all, he had put up a gallant effort against a clearly favored opponent.
Another pair of opponents entered the ring, but she had seen enough for now. Grendon helped her down from the table, and she continued her tour of the camp with her entourage of guards.
She entered the cook tent, she was getting hungry. With the stopover, the cooks were busy all day providing food for the legion. And since they had more time than usual, they took a bit more care in preparing the typical ration stew, providing a few variations for the men. Belsira took a helping of the southern style, made with more spices than typical of her home province.
Her guards were still on duty, so a couple took rolls and nothing more. They couldn't even sit at the table with her, so to avoid feeling awkwardly alone, she sat next to some other soldiers.
"Good day to you, gentlemen."
"Good day to you as well, Lady." She saw the immediate improvement in the auras of the six men at the table. She well realized that the sight of a young woman always did wonders for morale, and she never hesitated to spread as much good cheer as possible.
"I don't believe we've met personally yet. Where are you fellows from?" she asked.
"Me? I'm from Hatchley in the East. First time I've been more than two towns away from home. Name's Moorse."
"Glad to meet you, Moorse, and you?" she asked of the young man sitting across from her. She listened as he told her about his family back home, his little brother learning the family trade of weaving. She ate her stew, deliciously different after weeks of standard rations, and listened in turn to each of their life stories.
And when she was done eating and took her leave, she knew six more men of the Fourth Legion just a little bit better. It was so easy to stand with Kirtok during maneuvers and think of these people as pieces of a game. She instinctively knew that to do her best for them in the coming battles, she needed more.
After all, she was going to ask them to share their emotions with her, so she should give them the courtesy of introducing herself.
So she continued her wanderings, greeting and meeting as many soldiers as she could. But as she did so, the fear also grew that she wouldn't be worthy to protect these fine people when it came time for battle. She just had no idea what to really expect when going up against an experienced battle talent who probably knew tricks she had never even heard of, much less practiced in training. Samuel and Hylian had essentially told her they were sticking with basic tactics that she'd definitely be able to handle. But could she even do that?
As hard as it was, she vanquished that doubt yet again, and moved on to talk to a couple more soldiers sitting in the shade of their tent and honing their swords. She recognized one as somebody from her province that she had talked to before.
"Hello, Merck. Are you as bored as I am?"
He looked up, smiled. "I think that's just about impossible, Lady Bel. I'd almost rather go do battle right now!"
He said it with such earnestness that even Belsira's guards laughed.
With that simple life-affirming sound, she suddenly felt the kind of confidence that everything would be all right. Even if it wasn't true, the moment, the now was good enough for her. She understood now that the gambling wasn't defeatism, if was to make this time more intense, more full of life for those whose time might be short for this world. They needed that joy, and she needed it as well.
"Do you have any dice with you, Merck? I suddenly feel lucky!"
"His grin got even bigger as he reached into the pocket on the front of his tunic. I never leave home without them, Lady Belsira."
"Good, I have a few coins I may let you fellows win if you're nice enough."
She sat down with the rest of them, pulled out her purse, and surrendered herself to luck.
Four days out of Gelfont, the war started for Belsira. She was dozing in the saddle, when a buzz traveled up and down the line of the legion. Scouts had spotted a contingent of Tarsem troops in the woods around the next hill.
"Come on, Bel, I'm sure Kirtok will want to talk with us." Portik said as he urged his horse forward to Kirtok at the head of the legion.
When they arrived, Kirtok, his senior officers, and the scouts were sketching the situation in the dust of the road.
"Good, Portik, I'll want your opinion as well," Kirtok said, then started pointing to the rough map on the ground. "Gareth here reports a force of approximately five hundred camped in the woods to our right, two hills over. It looks as if they are a raiding party organized to travel at night and hide out during the day."
"What's the makeup of the force?" Portik asked.
"All foot, Sir," Gareth answered. "Not even pack horses. Hard to tell the weaponry they carry since they were either in their tents or lounging in camp. There's an inner perimeter of guard, about eighty men in positions circling the camp just beyond the tents, plus about ten roving patrols of two men each at shouting distance from camp. No sign of scouts beyond that, and I don't believe I was seen."
"Then we should have at least some surprise at our advantage." Kirtok looked at the makeshift map. "The road curls around behind them here, if we can get a force there first, strong enough to hold them for a short while, then we can send the bulk of the legion through the woods to flush them out."
Loric continued the thought. "Then we could squeeze them between the forces, give them no exit."
Kirtok nodded. "Right. I don't want this to end up as an endless chase through the woods. They could mount a continuous rearguard action that would take us miles to break through to the main force. By that time the legion would be tired, and spread far too thin. There's no telling whether there's an enemy legion waiting for us at the end of this run. I want this battle over quickly."
"How should I divide the legion, General?" Loric asked.
Cavalry and Third Division will travel down the road at best speed and set up here." He pointed to where the road went through a small pass in the hills." They'll have to either challenge us there, or climb the bluff. That won't be enough men to take them on without heavy losses, so maximum defensive status. Loric, you'll command that contingent.
"The rest of the legion will travel overland to attack the camp. I would hope for complete surprise but I won't count on it. The more confused they are when flushed, the better obviously.
"Belsira, you'll be with the main force since we'll be the first to encounter them. I don't expect a battle talent among a force that small, but I wouldn't be surprised either. The enemy has a decided numerical advantage of talents now, and they may decide to use it in unconventional situations. We have an overwhelming manpower advantage, so concentrate on defense if there is a talent there. The soldiers can handle the rest.
"Once they start running, do whatever you can to slow them down. I want the smallest possible time between when they meet the other contingent and when the rest of us arrive to close the trap.
"Loric, unload twenty wagons for the men to ride to the ambush point. Speed is important, and you'll need the troops fresh when you get there. Not much more for me to tell you, so go ahead and start preparations. We'll start our march shortly after you've left. I want to give you time to get there, but not enough time for warning if any scouts should spot you. If you run into another force, head into the woods and rendezvous with us near their camp, no point in keeping us separated if there's more than we realize."
"Yes, sir. I'll start right away." Loric left, yelling orders as he ran to gather his force.
Kirtok turned to the rest of his officers. "We'll mass just short of their camp, then send a force farther to the west to cut off any attempt to run deeper into the hills. With the ridge over that way aiding defense, we should only need four companies to discourage a retreat in that direction.
"We'll approach as silently as possible from there, but at any sign of alarm, we rush forward at full charge. Keep your units cohesive, though, I want them to be in a state of confusion, not us. There's no reason for us to suffer anything but light casualties."
Kirtok dismissed everybody to prepare, and Belsira followed Portik back to the unit.
The knot in her stomach made her dizzy with its intensity, and it didn't help that every single person around her was throwing off a pale green aura of anxiety. All except Portik of course.
She focused her mind, and dumped some excess emotion into her worry stone, then joined Portik and the rest of her guards as he passed the battle plans to his men. He also explained her role again, suggested some likely techniques that she could use and the situations that would call for them, then gave her a soothing talk one-on-one.
Then they waited for the rest of the legion to get ready. Loric's force left along the road, cavalry and men piled into wagons. All of the units except for a token group left behind to guard the supplies formed up along the road. Then Kirtok, high up on his black war stallion, gave the signal for the Fourth Legion to march.
Instead of the usual column, they now marched in a broad row into the open field beside the road. In no time at all, they reached the woods that covered the gentle hills in this area. While the foot soldiers were able to maintain a steady line, Portik had to weave Belsira's mounted unit back and forth to find a clear path on occasion.
Fortunately, the forest wasn't very thick in this area. Sunlight sparkled through the leafy canopy, and the shade provided welcome relief from the heat, especially outfitted in full armor as she was now.
She was quite surprised when Portik ordered them to halt, were they there already? She had been concentrating too much on riding to think about the distance, or luckily, the coming battle. But the wait now while the right flank moved into position brought back the nervousness.
Remembering her duty, she reached out her awareness into the woods before her, trying to see if there was anybody there that shouldn't be, or if there was another talent around.
Nothing that she could detect, so she nodded to Portik and he flashed hand signals up and down the line. Then more waiting. Belsira looked to either side of her. While she couldn't see anything beyond the adjacent companies of men, she could feel the aura of building anxiety, and even fear, building all along the line.
Finally, somewhere along the line that Belsira couldn't see, Kirtok gave the command to move forward. All of the legion's preparations were about to be tested in blood. Portik beckoned the unit to follow him forward. They would hold back from the front line of the battle, so Belsira could do whatever possible to hinder the enemy.
She began skimming the top off of the emotional energy being generated to establish the connection. Right now, she didn't have a target to drain much of it away, and she also didn't want to eliminate the soldiers' fear, it was a handy ally in the right dose to assist the survival instinct.
Engrossed in internal concentration, she didn't even notice the first couple of isolated shouts in the woods. Then it began.
With a tremendous roar, the Fourth legion erupted in a surge of activity.
Simultaneously, she got hit with the raw emotional surge of panic from the enemy ahead, and the rage of bloodlust from her legion. Still too far away to see the enemy and target the rush of power coming into her, she sent it into a tree forward of the charging legion, then watched in astonishment as it crashed to the ground in a tremendous fall as all of the energy tore its structure to pieces.
Before she even had a moment to think about that, she saw that the camp was just beyond that tree, and that branches thick as a man had fallen on several tents. The legion's reaction to that was to roar even louder as they charged into the camp, cutting down enemy soldiers as they emerged dazed and confused from their tents. A few were armed and ready for combat, but they fell quickly before the onrush of overwhelming numbers.
A she galloped closer, she could see men in full panic running from the far side of the camp into the woods. She drew in another burst of energy, and repeated her trick, but this time aiming at several trees amidst the retreating soldiers.
Showered with debris from the shattered trunks, and pelted with falling branches, their exit was nearly cut off. Seeing how effective that was, she kept repeating the attack on the trees in the distance until that area was an impenetrable mass of tangled vegetation.
Then she turned her concentration toward making sure there wasn't a talent with the enemy, monitoring the auras of both sides to see if they were being tapped.
It was only then that she remembered that she should have erected a shield earlier to both prevent the tapping of energy from the legion, and to protect the horses in her unit. She skimmed a portion of energy, erected the barrier, then set aside a small bit of her concentration to monitor it.
It was a strange effect, much like an aura, but gray, and encompassing an area defined by her rather than the source.
With that problem taken care of, she couldn't help but be awed at the raw energy being expended during the battle here. None of the exercises, even with the full legion, had prepared her for this level of power.
Absolute panic as men are cut down, the killing rage of the soldiers as they do it, the elation at each triumph. And right now, there was no place for her to vent that power, the battle was too closely joined and her sight too blocked by the trees spread around and through the enemy camp. So she did as she was ordered and maintained her defense while continuously looking for any hidden talent amid the chaos.
But her concentration became strained as she watched the bloodshed. There was no organized opposition except in small pockets, and even they were cut down in short order.
But what made her own anger rise is how even enemy soldiers that surrendered were killed. The frenzy of the legion's men made her sick with disgust. These were the people she lived with day after day, ate with in the cook tent?
Just then, Kirtok rode up to Portik, a wide grin on his face. He turned to Belsira.
"Victory, much easier than I could have hoped! Magnificent job, Belsira, your demolition of the trees to stop their retreat completely eliminated the need to run the enemy down as I had feared, we can finish the task here."
All she could think of was how she'd like to take that smug look off his face. "You mean that slaughter going on over there?"
"Bel, that's combat. What did you expect?"
"I didn't expect to see prisoners executed, I can tell you that."
Kirtok sighed, closed his eyes for a moment, then turned to Portik. "Explain it to her." Then he rode off back into the dying remains of the fray.
Belsira looked at Portik. "What does he mean, 'explain it'?"
Portik actually looked uncomfortable for the first time that she could ever remember.
"We have absolutely no way to accommodate prisoners. We can't afford to send any men with them to take them back to safe home territory, and we can't afford to let them go. Trained soldiers are the most important and irreplaceable element to an army besides a trained battle talent. If we let them go back, as soon as they can rejoin their forces and get a new sword, it's as if we never fought this battle, and the casualties we took for this victory are wasted.
"That's the cruel truth and nature of war. As much as we could wish it to be different, it isn't."
She had no answer. Portik displayed a sincere sadness with his words, and despite her anger, there was no way she could take it out on him.
So she turned her attention back to her duty and let it pass.
Start of Chapter 4 next post. Still ahead in writing, 4 is done, halfway through 5.
"I'm trying." But the frustration grew in her as the flow changed beyond what she intended.
On her knees in the woods behind Hylian's cabin, Belsira watched the sapling wilt under her gaze. She had been trying to help it grow, though. What had started as happy thoughts quickly grew out of control into anger and frustration when the experiment cascaded beyond what she had intended.
"Let it go, Bel. Turn the energy into your stone, quickly!"
She grasped her worry stone hanging around her neck and bent the flow to it, working the rock in her hands as she felt the warmth of her power soften it. She couldn't break the connection to the little plant, though. It continued to shrivel and blacken beneath her until it lay as a limp mass of goo on the ground that stank of decay. The connection finally broke.
"I killed it."
"Yes, but that's why we're way out here, there are still plenty of other trees so you haven't done any harm. But this is why it's so important for you to learn to harness your abilities. When you have the skills, you can start and stop whenever you wish."
"But why did you want me to just grow the one branch? I could have easily helped the whole tree grow."
"Because you must also learn to direct your talent to specific actions, with specific goals. Limiting the scope of its effects is as important as being able to turn it on or off.
"You also saw how you couldn't use your negative emotions toward positive ends. Once your happiness turned to frustration when you lost control of growing just the one branch, you no longer were helping the sapling, you were destroying it."
"No need to be, child. It will take time to master your abilities, just as it did with me."
Belsira looked at Hylian with renewed interest. "How long did it take you?"
"Years and years. I still don't have as much control as I would wish, so I must keep practicing even now."
"Oh." Years? Wasn't this ever going to get easier? "Why do I have this talent? Can't I just not use it?"
Hylian considered that before replying. "I don't know, dear. Talent is such a rare gift. Usually those with normal talent become great crafters -- they can use the joy and love of their work to subtly enhance the beauty and strength of their pieces. They can't draw energy from others, however, so there's a limit on what they can do before they drain their own energy. That's what you experienced when you first used your own talent on your butterflies.
"For people with wild talent like you and me, it's much different. We can draw much more from ourselves, but we can end up completely depleting the feelings that motivate us to act in the first place. This is true whether we use happiness or hatred.
"There are many good things that we could do if we could tap the energy of others, but the limits are too difficult to overcome. You can't just tell somebody to be happy so you can use it to grow a plant. And if a person is genuinely happy, why would he want you to take that away from him?"
Hylian pointed to the dead plant. "As you can see, while it would be easy to induce negative emotions in somebody -- just step on his big toe -- there's not much that you could do that would be helpful."
She pushed herself up from her knees and took Belsira's hand. "I think this is enough for today, let's go back."
As they strolled beneath the forest canopy, Belsira thought about Hylian's words. There wasn't much she could do with her talent, but she knew that she would have to learn to control it. She would never again let anything happen like what happened with Tam.
Control. That's what Hylian had said. She must control her talent, her emotions. If she hadn't gotten frustrated, the sapling wouldn't have withered beneath her, the growth would have just spread throughout the plant instead of being focused on one branch.
Beslira stopped, pulling Hylian back. "Can I try again?"
Hylian considered. "Are you sure? Do you think you can control it this time?"
"I don't know, but I'd like to try."
"Very well." Hylian and Belsira left the path to search for a likely subject for the test. Within a few minutes, Hylian found a small shrub that would work.
"See how it's unbalanced by this large branch on one side. I'd like you to focus on this sprout on the other side and grow it to equal the larger branch."
Belsira sat down next to it. "All right, what do I do first?"
"Clear your mind. Think of your butterflies, pretty butterflies dancing in the morning sun. Close your eyes if your must to imagine them. Play with them, Bel, dance with them, let yourself feel the joy of the experience."
She did. She remembered her little butterflies and the carefree days of following them and painting them all the colors of the rainbow. She could feel the smile grow across her face, the happiness grow in her heart. "I'm ready."
"Good, now open your eyes. Examine the bush carefully. Visualize how the shoot will grow when you give it your energy, then focus your thoughts on that branch, watch it grow to equal the other side, then when you're finished, carefully withdraw your mind to yourself."
"All right. Here I go." Bel focused her gaze on the sprouting shoot, imagined the joy of watching it grow, then opened the flow from herself and directed it at the bush.
The sprout pushed out, growing and inch, two inches, then branched once then twice as it grew. The profusion of new branches confused her, though, and the energy flow spread to the rest of the bush, just like it had with the sapling. She didn't panic, she let the growth spread. Instead of getting frustrated, she reminded herself that she wasn't hurting the plant with this, just that she wasn't doing exactly as she had set out.
Bel tried to pull back and stop the flow, but she had lost control of that also. No matter, she let it go, there wasn't much left in her to give to the plant. While she hadn't turned angry, her joy had faded quickly as the combination of energy flow and knowing that she wasn't accomplishing her goal drained her.
Soon, everything was gone out of her and she sat staring blankly at the bush which was now considerably larger, if not any more balanced than before.
She looked up and expected a frown from Hylian, but instead received a smile.
"Very good, Bel. Excellent work, you did very well."
"But the growth went out of control and spread all over."
"Ah, but you didn't. You kept yourself under control the entire time. That's the important lesson. You'll have plenty of time to learn how to focus on such a small area, but you can never know when controlling your own emotions will save you or others from disastrous results."
"You mean I did all right?"
"More than all right, Bel. Let's go home now, and I'll bake a sweet cake to celebrate."
Belsira stood up and once again placed her hand in Hylian's and they finished their walk home.
Two days after her first battle, Belsira was still shaking from leftover excitement. It didn't help that the whole legion was emotionally buzzing with the victory, she had already gone through a new worry stone while trying to channel the energy away.
The scenes still replayed constantly in her mind and made it difficult for her to eat. Until it had happened, she had no measure of the horrors of war. And the ruthless slaughter by the legion of the enemy made her doubt the very purpose for them being out here in the first place.
The only center of sanity she could focus on was Portik's sincere regret over the killing. For a man who came across as cold and calculating, especially to somebody with her abilities, he was the one to show the most feeling about the issue. So far, everybody else she had talked to accepted the need to kill even prisoners as a necessary function of the war. Kirtok had even seemed a bit disgusted with her questioning the practice.
So she felt even more isolated than usual. All of her efforts to bridge the gap between her and the troops seemed wasted now, she'd never understand the casual cruelty of soldiers in war.
Yet she was bound to her duty to participate. And she held the potential to be responsible for more deaths than any other person in the legion.
It was too much for her to comprehend at the moment, and she knew that if they were caught in another battle soon, she'd very likely not be able to perform her duties nearly well enough to do the legion any good.
She certainly couldn't bring her doubts and mixed feelings to Kirtok. He would not likely be very sympathetic. As much as she liked many of the common soldiers, exposing her doubts to any of them, especially if the talk spread among the legion, would be disastrous for morale. She didn't know any of the other officers well enough to discuss something so sensitive.
Her only option was Portik, but the risk was great there as well. If they became estranged over this, they would have a very difficult time cooperating enough to serve the rest of the legion.
But the way she felt right now, she had no choice.
She worked her horse up to the head of the line of guards where Portik rode.
"Portik, I need to talk with you."
He looked at her, cool and as always, unreadable. "I thought you might."
"Oh?" Why was she surprised?
"Yes, it never matters the circumstances or position. The first time a person is in combat, their entire life is changed -- they never see the world the same way again. And it doesn't matter if the experience and outcome is positive or negative. Seeing people die needlessly, even your enemies, will disturb the core of any person alive."
"But the men don't seem to be affected. They're downright giddy with excitement, and I'd be the one that could tell."
"That doesn't matter much, they're young men for the most part, and they don't yet know their own heart. They're simply relieved to be alive and that the battle went so well. Only sixteen dead, twenty-two wounded against five hundred of the enemy. Victories don't come any better than that."
"That's why I still don't see the need to kill every last one of the enemy. I know what you said, and I even understand part of the logic, but that doesn't help me feel any better about it. If we behave like that, what makes us any better than them?"
"For one, the land we're standing on. My oath was to defend and protect Mardya from all of those that would attack our land, people, and way of life. Relath has brought this war to us for his own personal glory. I have no problem carrying out my oath in this war, even if it means doing some very unpleasant things in the process."
Belsira had to agree there. She had been there during a major meeting with King Hartan and General Kirtok and other high-ranking officials, and she never felt that they were concerned with anything but the welfare of the people of Mardya and the other allied kingdoms.
"What was your first combat like, Portik?"
"Mine? That was years ago, Bel, I can barely remember it know."
She couldn't help but laugh. "You just said it was life changing to every person who goes through it."
Unflustered, he looked at her. "Yes, it is, and I was no exception. It doesn't mean that the memory is pleasant."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean that..."
"It's all right, Bel, it's a fair question." He sat silently a moment, looking straight ahead now.
"I was assigned to an outpost near the Eastern Foothills. Raiding parties would come down and attack trade caravans, ranches, and villages near the frontier there. Our company had fifty men, all on horseback to cover such a wide area.
"We finally tracked them to one of their supply caches in a steep ravine. We had divided the company in order to do the search, however, so we only had twenty-five against forty bandits. We sent a rider to find the other half of the company, but there was no telling when they'd be able to reinforce us.
"When they saw they had superior numbers, they attacked our position at the mouth of the ravine.
"In all my years since, I have never seen such a vicious and effective charge. A half-dozen of our men went down before we could consolidate our position and start to trade blows straight up.
"It was only our superior training and cohesiveness that saved my life that day. Even then, only six of us survived, none without wounds. Two more men died in the two days it took for the rest of the company to find us, so I not only saw friends and comrades die before my eyes under the sword, but also in my arms.
"And still, when I think back on it, I can see the faces of the men I killed that day, four of them. And the thing I can't forget is the look of surprise on their faces the moment they realized they were going to die. Despite any fear they may have had going into that fight, I don't think they believed that it was possible they wouldn't make it."
"And what about you?"
Portik snorted. "Me, I never believed I'd survive that day.
"And that kind of feeling gives you a freedom that is unmatched by anything you could ever imagine. My arms never tired, my footing never faltered, my concentration never wavered. We could have been there fighting for hours, or for seconds, I couldn't tell you.
"What I can tell you is that the rest of my life has been a gift."
Belsira thought about that, realized how that would appear to be the truth in a situation like Portik's. But her first combat hadn't been anywhere near that intense or dangerous. She felt effects, but they were her effects. But she really didn't want to dwell on what exactly those were, so she changed the subject.
"Where are you from, Portik?"
"From the south here."
"Oh. Is your family still here?"
"No. They died some time ago."
"I'm sorry, Portik. I didn't mean to pry."
He remained silent for a few minutes, but continued.
"Trennik fever struck our village when I was sixteen, my parents and younger sister Kateline all died, leaving me alone in the world. A friend of my father's in Hidelway took me in, but I was so resentful against the world for taking my family, that I'm afraid I was quite a pest for him to handle.
"The one saving grace was their young daughter, Misha, about six years old when I came to live with them. She just didn't let me stay morose for very long, she always had a smile and a song. Like a little songbird she was, always singing.
"I always took off to be by myself in the woods near town, and she always wanted to follow me. I was glad for her company too."
The unmistakable aura of sadness engulfed Portik now. Belsira knew that there was no turning back now.
With a great effort, he dulled the pain back to levels she could barely detect before answering.
"I was stupid. Fandar was only trying to help, to give me something in my life that was taken away. But I could only see someone trying to replace my father, replace my mother, so I lashed out at them. One day when I didn't feel like chopping the firewood, and Darine gave me an earful.
"Well, I snapped, shoved her across the room, stormed off like a child.
"Fandar found me, and although I expected the worst thrashing of my life, one I thoroughly deserved, all he said, very calmly, was, 'pack your things and get out of my house, Portik, and never come back.'
"I never even got a chance to say goodbye to Misha."
Belsira couldn't even begin to think of what to say. Portik didn't give her the chance.
"So I joined the legion. Best decision I ever made. They gave me the discipline to overcome my anger and hurt of losing so many people close to me. That first battle made me appreciate what I still have despite those losses."
That was all, Belsira had no more questions after those revelations, and Portik seemed done with his explanations of his life. But it was far more than she had expected from the cool silent captain, and very illuminating information. Why he had decided to tell her all this was a mystery, though.
Kirtok had said that this afternoon's march would bring the legion to Hidelway. For hours now, Belsira had been discretely staring at Portik, wondering what he was thinking about this homecoming. Not even a trace of aura escaped him now, however.
But somehow, the guards had picked up on his mood, and they were as silent and sullen as he was, so she was left without anybody to talk to.
Then, far up the column, she saw the scout ride up and talk to Kirtok. He was gesturing wildly, and though she was too far to hear his words, the scout's aura was a deep red of anger, soon matched by Kirtok's. Something up ahead was very wrong.
When the legion finally reached Hidelway, it was all too obvious, the town had been burned to the ground. Still no reaction from Portik, though.
The men spread out to see if they could find any survivors or clues as to what had happened. Portik continued riding toward the far side of town, and Belsira followed. He didn't rush, still didn't allow any emotion to expose itself to her special sight, he just kept going past building after burnt out building.
Finally, he arrived at his destination, dismounted, and began to walk around the husk of the house that used to stand here. It hadn't been completely burned down, but it was obviously beyond repair.
When he had made a complete circuit, he began to dig through the wreckage, throwing aside planks and boards with the calm efficiency that she had come to expect of Portik these last few weeks. Now she knew why he had told her his life story, why he exposed his deepest secrets to her. He needed somebody to know why he was here.
His men who had followed him here and were now also pulling the building apart weren't in a position to be his confidante. He had to maintain his commander/soldier relationship with them at all costs. How could he ever open up to one of these men, then be able to order them into battle where they may die?
Belsira was outside of the loop, not technically under his command, only his watch. She was also uniquely qualified to witness his emotional reaction. He probably told her as much to avoid her questions now as much as to bring her within his confidence.
He still showed nothing, no aura, and with only a mild grimness to his visage that wasn't unknown with him. The soldiers all glowed red with pent rage at the destruction and slaughter in the town, though. They threw aside debris with vengeance in their muscles. If they couldn't yet let loose on the enemy, they would take it out on the inanimate targets of their enemy.
"Here's a body, Sir." One of the men called out to Portik, pointed to something beneath the rubble. Three others joined him to clear away the debris from the burned corpse. Portik leaned over, nodded, then gestured for the men to take it away. Belsira saw that it was a man.
"Another, Sir." This time, they brought out a woman's body and laid it beside the man's on the ground, covering both with blankets.
They continued to tear through the wreckage.
There, what was that?
Green, a deep cast of green amid the red, fear, stark terror rather.
Belsira ran into the debris, found the focus of the fear, there.
"Portik, here! There's somebody here! Alive"
She never saw him react like that before, he bounded to where she pointed, ripping the boards away with his bare hands like a mad man. Belsira had to jump out of the way of the debris as the rest of the guards joined in the frantic effort.
Soon, they were down to bare floor, unburned in the fire that had otherwise consumed the house. Men began prying at the floorboards with pikes, tearing up the wood in great creaking splinters. Finally, they found what they were looking for and they stopped.
The fear coming from the hiding place was unbearable even for Belsira to witness, she didn't know how the poor person there could stand it. She opened herself to it, though, drawing the worst of it off, letting only a sane amount of fear remain.
Portik leaned down. "Misha? Misha! It's me, Portik. Do you remember me?" He reached his hand, slowly, into the hole. "I'm here to help you, Misha, I'm here with an entire legion from Mardya. You're safe, honey, please come out."
From her vantage on the edge of the ruin, Belsira saw the aura fade from fear to a combination of relief and sadness. A thin white hand emerged from the sooty, dirty hole and grasped Portik's. He raised her gently from the hole, set her on her feet, and hugged her fiercely.
"You're all right, Misha, I'm here now for you. I'm here. I'm here."
The relief and sadness came from both of them now, so intense, Belsira thought she may go blind. But this time, it wasn't her place to attenuate those emotions, they were honestly earned by honest souls. And she saw something that she never in her life would believe possible.
Tears from Portik.
He rocked Misha in his embrace. It was hard to tell through the dirt and soot on her clothes and face, but she appeared to be a bit older than Belsira. If Portik's story was complete, he hadn't seen her in nearly fifteen years.
Belsira watched as he held her, a quiet harbor in a sea of activity as the men continued their grim search. Finally, Portik pulled back, asked a question. Misha shook her head 'no', so Portik had the men stop. Nothing else to be found here.
He stood, and led her away from what used to be her home, away from the two bodies under the blanket, they weren't something she needed to see now. Belsira followed them, at a respectful distance, and the rest of the men scattered to join other details looking for survivors among the ruins of the town.
Portik carried Misha to the supply wagons, filled a basin with water, then wiped the grime and dirt away from her face. Belsira wasn't sure what she could do.
Kirtok came over then, first to Belsira.
"You found a survivor?"
"Yes, on the other edge of the town. Portik knows her from before he joined the legion."
"Oh?" He turned to look at Portik care for the girl, then again to Belsira. "Unfortunately, she's the first. It looks like either those who did this were far too efficient, or took any other survivors with them."
He sighed. "I've ordered camp to be set up here. We'll stay long enough to bury the bodies, then see if we can find out where the bastards who did this went. It had to be a sizable force, and we can't let them slip around behind us to wreak havoc at will."
"What will we do with her, or other survivors if we find them?"
"We'll see to their immediate needs, then send them back to Gelfont with the empty supply wagons."
"I wish there was more we could do."
"So do I Bel. But right now, the best action for us is to make sure this doesn't happen anywhere else, though I fear it already has in towns and villages closer to the border."
Belsira looked up at him, shock on her face as she pictured town after town with the same devastation.
"Is it always like this? Complete annihilation?"
"No, not when an army is truly trying to conquer an area. They simply destroy the military capability of the enemy, then garrison the towns to make sure people obey the new ruler."
Kirtok waved his hand over the destruction. "This. This is merely a distraction."
"A distraction?" Killing, how many, three hundred innocent people is a distraction?"
"Yes. They know we'll be sending a legion toward to south to protect this region, maybe even to go over the pass and support Melwick. But they also know that because we have a shortage of Battle Talents, we can't split our forces effectively, we have to keep to a very few, large formations.
"Whatever our plans may have been in their eyes, they want to keep us from carrying them out. Massacre a town here, sack a village there, and soon we'll have no choice but to run all over the countryside chasing them down."
Kirtok sighed. "Fortunately, that's our mission anyway. The outcome of the war will be decided elsewhere, so our job is simply to defend the South of Mardya as best we can against all comers. That means that the bastards who did this will pay, on that I stake my reputation and life."
Belsira didn't doubt him. She felt that way herself in fact.
But oddly enough, it wasn't anger or rage that motivated her, just a sense of justice. Or was she simply justifying the thought of killing the army that had done this? More than anything else right now, she was confused. The issues seemed clear, but the emotions certainly didn't, at least not for her.
But as she looked out over the burnt-out town, the red aura of anger coming from the men was quite palpable. Since they couldn't take out their frustration on an enemy at the moment, they instead took it out on the debris that they dug through as they searched for bodies, and perhaps more survivors.
"Excuse me, General, I just realized that if there are any more survivors, I should be able to see them through the debris like I did with Portik's friend Misha."
Kirtok eyes widened. "Yes, yes, by all means, get out there Bel! Gods, I hope you're successful."
She nodded silently, ran to the nearest building, then explained to the men what she could do.
She scanned for an aura, even a faint one, but nothing came through. Sometimes even the emotional leakage from a dream was visible, but if a person was knocked unconscious by injury, she wasn't sure if she'd be able to detect anything from that.
Still, she had to try.
Nothing at the first building, so she went on to the next. She had the men move back so she wouldn't get their auras confused with any survivors', but again, nothing.
Building after building, throughout the town, the same result. She had been so hopeful, but now she was only depressed at her failure. The men may very well find some unconscious survivors, but she doubted it after seeing the thoroughness of the raiders' work. There was just no place to hide.
When she returned to the supply wagons, Portik was coming out of the tent where he had taken Misha.
"How is she?"
"As well as could be expected. She's cleaned up now, and in fresh clothes, and has finally fallen asleep. The trauma must be unbearable for her."
"Yes, poor girl. Unfortunately, she may be the only survivor in the entire village. I wasn't able to detect any auras in any of the rubble, just endless blankness."
"I was afraid of that. I think the only reason Misha survived was because Fandar had that old hidey-hole under the floor where he kept some smuggled sweetberry wine. Nasty stuff, I had snuck a bottle myself when I lived there. Never again."
Kirtok approached. "I'm going to get some of the men started on setting up camp, while the rest continue the search. We'll stay here for a day or two, bury the bodies, then start to search for the bastards who did this. We won't rest until we find them."
Portik nodded. No aura emanated from him as usual, but the determination in his eyes was unmistakable.
Belsira sat under a tree on the edge of camp and watched Portik run his men through their daily drills. She didn't have to participate today, just work to prepare herself mentally for the battle to come.
There was a fire in Portik's actions now. Ever since he saw Misha off on the supply wagons returning to Gelfont, his demeanor was even more serious and cold than before, his demand for perfection from his men even more profound. Yet still he rarely let a glimpse of emotion escape where Belsira could detect it.
She worried that keeping his emotions in like that may hurt him later. She knew all too well how important it was for her to acknowledge her own emotions so that she could drain any excess into her worry stone or use it in some task.
She also worried that perhaps if emotions did come boiling to the surface of Portik's demeanor, they'd be negative ones: hatred, anger, bloodlust. She just couldn't imagine him with that kind of aura or personality. Nobody that could care so much about what happened to Misha should have to live that way.
She also worried about the rest of the legion, they were too ready to get into this battle. She dreaded the specter of the bloodlust that they could arouse when the time came.
Most of all she worried about herself. She felt the very same feelings of revenge and justice for this massacre as anybody else in the legion. She could taste the power coursing through her, then toward the enemy, she lusted for the chance to strike back at them for what they had done.
And that scared her. Had she changed so much already? Is she the same person that Hylian raised to respect and support all life? Now that she was a soldier, could she ever go back to just being Belsira?
She stood up, walked towards the town. The legion's men had finished searching the rubble, found no more survivors, and too many bodies. Misha had done far more than anybody could expect, and had identified as many of the people as possible. Some she didn't know well enough, though, and some were disfigured far beyond anybody's ability to identify. Final tally was three hundred and thirty-two dead, with eighty-seven unknown as to who they were.
They were buried now on a small rise just north of the town center. Belsira walked through Hidelway-no-more, then up the rise to stand among the dead.
Bare mounds of earth lay in neat rows and columns along the hillside. Dry summer grass lay trampled between them from the soldiers who dug the graves, then filled them again after giving rest to the victims of the massacre.
Too much lost potential here, too many dreams left unfulfilled.
Belsira left the graveyard, wandered back into the village again. She wished she knew what she was looking for. There didn't seem to be any purpose to her movements, just a way to relieve pent energy. She saw Portik again, so approached.
"How are you doing, Portik?"
He looked up from the inventory he was doing of supplies. "Hmmm? Fine, Belsira, fine."
"Do you think Misha will be all right?"
"I think so. I doubt that the enemy has gotten around behind us yet. We'll need to find them fast, though, or it could become a real possibility."
"No, I mean will she be all right in the long run?"
He stood silently, contemplating her question. "I don't know. I don't know anything about the woman she's become since I last saw her. But knowing the girl I knew then, and knowing her parents and the way they would have brought her up, I'm hopeful."
He didn't sound convinced, but there wasn't much Belsira could say not knowing more than she did.
Portik checked off the inventory from the wagon, moved to the next one. "I also told her how she could contact me through Legion Headquarters in Lethem if she should ever need any help when the war is over."
Belsira never ceased to wonder at the hidden assumption that everybody seemed to have that not only would they win the war, but that each person would himself make it through fine and then be able to pick up life where they had left it before.
Was she any different? She daydreamed often of getting back to the cabin with Hylian and continuing as if none of this had happened. And try as she might, she couldn't imagine what would be different if they both were able to return.
"Portik, there's also something else I'd like to talk to you about."
He turned to her. "Yes?"
"I'm not sure what's wrong, but I've been very uncomfortable about our situation over the last day."
"Understandable. We came across an example of great atrocity. Everybody is uncomfortable about that."
"I know, and that's part of the problem I think. All the soldiers are walking around, anger in their hearts, pacing like cats, and so eager for the revenge it scares me."
"What else would you expect? You saw the same things the rest of us did. Do you think we should just let it go as an unfortunate consequence of war? Even among the great evils that always exist in times of conflict, this is beyond the bounds of acceptability."
"I know Portik. I want to get the bastards as much as anybody, but there's something in the air that I don't like. If we hunt them down out of pure hatred, how much of them do we then take into our hearts? It's an obsession, and we're losing something important because of it. I just wish I knew what that was so I could explain better."
"I think I understand what you are trying to say, Bel. Unfortunately, I don't know what to do about it. Should we ask the men not to hate the enemy for what they've done? As much as I'd rather have them tackle the battle with a clear mind and soul, we can't tell people how to feel. And frankly, the charged emotions will give you much more to work with your talent."
"I know, it's just that right now, I don't feel as if I know any of these people. I can't help see what's inside them, and even though I know that they really aren't as hateful as they appear, it still bothers me."
Just then, they heard a commotion over towards Kirtok's command tent. One of the scouts came riding back at full speed, hopped off his horse, then ran into the tent. Portik and Belsira looked at each other, then rushed over to see what was happening.
As they entered, the scout, General Kirtok, and his aides, were looking at a map on Kirtok's table.
"I found them just east of Randen, marching along the south loop road here," the scout said, pointing at a place south of the legion's present position.
"Did you get a count and makeup of their forces?"
"Yes, Sir. Approximately three thousand infantry, only about 200 horse, plus supply train."
"That must be the main element in this area. Most likely at least one battle talent with a force that size." Kirtok looked up at Belsira. This was it -- the test she dreaded most.
Kirtok looked again at the map. "It will take them approximately three days to travel the rest of that road and come out back on the main road here behind us. We can go back to the junction in less than two.
"Loric, make sure we have a good rotating schedule of scouts to shadow their movements. I don't think they can take any other route through that terrain, but I don't want to be surprised by anything they do."
Kirtok turned to another aide. "Call the legion in and let's break camp, I want to be on the march in less than an hour."
Belsira saw that everything was now coming to a head, but she still felt uncomfortable with what was about to happen. Perhaps she had a way to change that.
"General, could I have you assemble the legion at the cemetery before we go?"
Kirtok glanced askew at Belsira, but nodded his assent. "Loric, pass the word, legion to assemble at the cemetery."
"What do you have in mind?" he asked.
"I'm not entirely sure, but I think it's important."
Kirtok shrugged, then started walking toward the hill. Belsira hurried to catch up.
What had she gotten herself into? What if her plan failed? It was very possible she could lose a great deal of confidence that the legion, or Kirtok, had in her. She was committed now, though, no choice but to try.
She reached the cemetery just before the crowd of the legion reached there.
"Loric, ask them to gather just below the graves here, they don't need to be in formation, though, I just want to talk to them."
"Yes, Lady Belsira."
While he barked the orders for the men to gather, she walked again among the graves, tried to gain a sense of the place, the people who were now buried here. People just like the ones she knew in Aberley or Crossley; people she could know and understand, people she could see as they lived their lives, laughing with the joys of everyday life.
When she reached the center of the cemetery, she turned around to face the legion.
Seven thousand faces looked at her, expecting something from her now, not from Kirtok or one of the other officers. They also faced her with a sea of red anger and even black hatred.
She knew it wasn't directed at her, but at the enemy, but it still disturbed her, and this wasn't what she needed at all.
Her voice cracked with the effort to be understood even to the back of the crowd. How was she going to do this with what suddenly felt like a little girl's voice? She didn't have the power or resonance of Kirtok or Portik, nor any of their leadership charisma. Too late to back out now, though, so she ploughed forward, cleared her throat, and tired again.
"Gentlemen. I need your joy for a moment."
Better, she was sure they all heard her now. Didn't help them comprehend her yet, but she still needed to explain.
"I want to do something for the people of Hidelway, and I need your help. But to do what I have in mind, I need your joy, not your anger at the injustice done here."
Still a lot of confusion in the ranks, and even from Kirtok and Portik watching from the side.
"I need you to think of home, of your loved ones and how much they mean to you. Because all of these people had the same -- loved ones who made them happy, and whom they could make happy in return.
"I want you all to think of those happy times, remember them and let them into your heart right now. Remember the joy of children at play, remember the feeling of somebody you care for held tightly in your arms."
The red faded, and a slight tint of blue started to arise as some of the men followed her directions, allowed themselves to feel what she described. But still not enough for what she wanted.
"What's the single most joyous moment of your lives, one that you would repeat in an instant, one with no regrets, no looking back. Maybe it's holding your child for the first time, or meeting your true love, or a beautiful Spring day where the sky is so blue you think you can fall into it. I need you to find that moment in time when you were as close to perfection as you could ever imagine."
More blue now, less red, though still not a complete conversion. She'd have to try now, or she might lose the moment as the minds of the men wandered.
She closed her eyes, took two deep breaths, then concentrated on the blue, leaving the red, the dark, aside. She pulled the joy into her, slowly and steadily, not wanting to take it all away from those that had followed her instruction.
Belsira drew it into herself, gathered it, then let it spread around her. She let flow the joy and happiness into the ground around the sorrowful bare graves, let the power reach the roots and stems of the grasses and flowers of the field. She guided the growth outward, upward. She opened her eyes and saw green where there was once brown and yellow.
The men saw too, and finally understood. Their joy grew, became more solid as the anger and bitterness faded into the background. They were witnessing a miracle, and knew it.
Now Belsira was able to tap into an even greater flow of power, to give that power to the growth around her. She brought water from beneath the soil to nourish the growth, guided the nutrients from soil to root to stem. Not that she had to consciously direct this action for every blade of grass, but that her understanding of plants taught to her by Hylian came to the forefront, as instinctual as breathing.
The growth spread across the earth of the graves, sent down roots to grab hold of the bare ground. Flowers began to blossom and bloom around her feet, and the surge of joy from the men in the legion made it even easier to add more to the growth.
But there was a limit to what they could give, and she didn't want to use it all anyway. She looked around at the graveyard turned garden, saw that with the help of the Fourth Legion, she had brought at least one taste of beauty to this tragedy. She only wished that she had thought of this before Misha had left.
Still, she had accomplished what she had hoped, and now it was time to leave. She shut down the flow of power through her, left the men with the gift of joy in their hearts instead of anger, hatred and bitterness. She walked down the hill toward Kirtok and Portik.
Both men were stunned into silence as she approached. Portik's face showed deep gratitude for what she had done. Kirtok looked both puzzled and impressed.
"General, I believe the legion is ready to march now."
I must say, I was rather pleased with this scene, and I have no idea where it came from. My notes for this part simply said, "The legion prepares for battle." It ended up a little beyond that.