The True Sword
TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO
The night had been full of laughter and celebration. The large campfire danced with its golden flames, licking at skewers of beef and pork. Booming laughter of women was everywhere, mixed with the whistling wind that swept their braids. The orange light that splashed on their bronze skin made them look golden, shadows accentuating the lines of the muscles on their arms and the creases on their faces when they smiled. One of the younger fighters was singing a sweet little ditty, her gentle voice carrying over the ambience in a soothing wave. The air was rich with the smell of meat roasting on spits and the earthy smell of soil beneath their boots. They were on a deserted area, a plain patch of dirt at the end of the forest with the view of a familiar castle. Behind them were the dark figures of naked trees, silent and intimidating. But they had warmth, company, and rest. There was nothing to worry about. Their arduous journey crossing the kingdom of Esousia, from the rimy Winter District to the balmy Summer District was over. And tomorrow their real fight would have begun.
The leader of the female army, Saian Rinfarr had sat next to her trusted right hand, her eyes drinking in the scene with a sort of satisfaction. She listened to the tales of adventure and glory and shared them her input when necessary. She laughed at a joke or two but she could not help but look up frequently, at her former home. Castle Rinfarr. It stood tall and wide against the looming, argent moon. A smile came to her face because of the thought of tomorrow. She had been building her life for tomorrow. But she needed this rest, this night to lower her sword and ease her mind.
She watched Mancera Fyinse, her right hand, hone her broadsword with a sharpened rock. Their eyes met and she grinned at Mancera.
“Put your weapon away for once, Mance,” she said. “This is a celebration.”
“One must be alert even in merriment.” Mance replied but listened and put her halberd down.
Saian’s eyes flitted around the camp, searching.
“Where is my sister?”
“Naira? I saw her earlier. Went for a p*ss.”
Naira was Saian’s younger sister. She sat high in the hierarchy, on the same level as Mancera, but the reason being her Rinfarr blood. Naira had lacked prowess on the battlefield and had only pessimism and discouragement to offer, but was no strategist either. Putting a sword in her hand was like giving a horse the map of Uethena, the continent uniting the five, independent kingdoms. A quill and parchment had suited her better—everyone had known that, but bringing her along to war had no benefit to anyone in the Rinfarr army. She had attempted to learn medicine at seventeen but lacked a careful hand and a strong stomach. Saian wondered why she had even bothered to come with them but she had been better with the bow…but not enough to shoot a man of Dawsor from afar.
Everything Naira wasn’t, Saian was. As a child Saian had shown skill with many weapons; swords, bows, maces, and even scythes. She could read but hadn’t tried to go beyond it. Literacy had meant little to her. She had trained long and hard, shed blood and sweat, to take back their rightful land.
Their home was Andrimos of the Summer District, one of the biggest lands in the country Esousia. Saian and Naira’s father, Lord Aldor, had married Lady Mollyn of Castle Dawsor a fortnight after their first encounter. The memory of their gentle mother was replaced by the tall, stiff snake. Lord Aldor was a just man in court, hard but considerate. He had a weakness for Lady Mollyn. Servants had whispered that she ruled him while he ruled Andrimos. It had taken the whole region by surprise when the bells tolled his death. His people had mourned for weeks. Saian was eleven and Naira was nine when they had lost their father but they were not allowed much time for grieving. Lady Mollyn announced to Andrimos that on his deathbed, his last words had been for her, to rule the land in his stead. There was no written will but the people took her word for it, for the tears of a pretty face had always pulled at the hearts of mourners.
Saian had never trusted Lady Mollyn, especially not after her claim to her father’s land. Andrimos was not like Wardbeck — where women were only either prostitutes or slaves; women were allowed to rule. And by rights, Andrimos was hers. Of course, Lady Mollyn would have never let the clear issue pass. Saian was young and unfit to rule—it was true enough. She had not the slightest idea of how to be a proper girl, let alone a noblewoman. So Lady Mollyn humbly labelled herself regent but Saian knew that once she turned the ripe age of eighteen, she was to be dealt with so that she never touched her father’s seat. She was small and quick, she could crawl into corners and eavesdrop whenever and wherever she liked. It just so happened that Lady Mollyn was having a discreet conversation with one of her counsellors about her, late at night in her bedchambers.
“Perhaps a slip at archery practice?”
“Or a severe malady that will keep her bedridden forever.”
Angry but unsurprised, fifteen-year-old Saian had fled Andrimos the same night with sleepy little Naira on two horses from the stables. To the lowborn they had looked like nothing more than beggar girls, for Saian had hacked off their hair, rubbed dirt on their cheeks, and cut their skin so that a few scars disfigured their faces. Naira complained but stopped, when she had finally accepted that they were now alone in the world. They made it out of Andrimos after many harsh days with little food and water and had settled in the neighboring land, Syntrefia. They found jobs as young serving girls named Cia and Lais, in a tavern where men liked to put their hands wherever they liked. News of their disappearance had passed from the lips of whomever they walked by, also of the heaps of gold promised to the man who finds them. When Saian heard of it, she scoffed, because the bounty had been simply for the public to believe that Lady Mollyn actually cared. A few months later, news of Lady Mollyn’s new husband, Lord Rynson, floated around. And soon enough, Lady Mollyn had given birth to twins, Tyenl and Morras. Then came Ollivard. Their step brothers.
She thought of how Castle Rinfarr must be heavy with the stench of the Dawsors, how it must be spreading like a slow burn. Every minute, every day she had spent as a girl in a tavern, balancing beers on a tray, had been allowing Mollyn to sink her claws into her home, making it hers and hers only. Those thoughts had helped Saian sleep at night, to wake up and start over. She knew she had to go on. And she had gone beyond that — she travelled to the other end of Esousia and had gotten herself her army.
“The beef looks ready,” Saian said, taking a spit. “and delicious.”
A few of her fighters had settled down around the warmth.
“Mmm,” Heeda groaned, a warrior with two vicious daggers, as her teeth ripped into the slightly charred meat.
“I ought to go look for Naira,” Saian said. “I’ll be back. Leave some food for us.”
Mancera nodded, busy with the pork. Saian walked down the campsite, in the direction of the trees where they had kept their horses and provisions and took their p*ss. When she noticed a certain pale mare missing from among the other horses, she knew Naira was gone. Without a moment of hesitation, she jumped onto her brilliant grey stallion, Xano, and galloped into the black woods.
The lively noise of her army soon died behind her and it was just her and the silence of the trees. A part of her feared that Naira had fled but it was expected. Saian had only wished that she had told her own sister. She had known her place was not in the fight. But what if she had gotten lost? It had taken them hours to find area to set up camp for the night because the forest was no place to sleep. You couldn’t even see the stars once you were in it, because the gnarled hands of the trees obscured the sky. Only the shards and pinpricks of moonlight could help people navigate across, but just barely.
“Naira?” She called out. “Naira! It’s Saian!”
Naira’s young mare, Rae, was not half as fast as her stallion so she assumed that she had not gotten far. But it worried her about the fact she had no idea how long her sister had been missing. They set up camp about five hours ago. Naira had been around for the first two, she was sure of that.
She kept riding. Her head was buzzing with all the dreadful possibilities of what could have happened to her own blood but she knew such distractions would only sap her resolve. All she had in mind was the trouble Naira could be in…but not once did she think Naira was the person causing it.
Once in a while she yelled out but to no avail. Only crows had answered her, hidden in the shadows. Their eyes shone in the blackness, like pearls. Xano seemed to glide across, the blade-like limbs of the trees unable to hinder him as Saian ducked from boughs. It grew quieter the deeper they went. Saian was vexed. Tomorrow they land their first attack on Castle Rinfarr. Tomorrow Saian would face her step brothers. Whatever Naira was doing was sidetracking her.
Saian blinked. A distance away, her eyes had caught onto small movement. She rode towards it.
“Naira? Is that you?”
She heard a soft, eerie hiss of a man. “…for a price, of course.”
Saian dismounted and ran over. Naira had been talking to a hooded figure, herself wrapped in a brown cloak. Her head swiveled at the sound of Saian’s footsteps. Their blue eyes met and were locked in a stare. Naira’s youthful face looked sickly and aged, slick with cold sweat and pale as the moon. Rae whickered a distance from them.
Naira was tall, a few inches taller than Saian but had weak arms and stick-thin legs. Her skin was smooth except for the scar that remained after Saian tore a knife through her cheek, to make her unrecognizable. They had the same eyes but hers were wide in a way that you’d think she was always surprised. She was delicate while Saian was hardened, with callouses on her hands and scars all over her arms concealed by snug leather bands. Their black hair, almost incredibly dark blue, was sleek and long. Naira kept hers in a dangling braid, uncut since her womanhood, while Saian’s was shorter, because she had chopped it off a year ago.
“Sister…what are you doing?” she asked.
Naira flinched, as if Saian’s voice had cut her. After a long pause, she answered shakily, “I…I will not lie to you.”
Saian looked at the man next to her. He wore a cloak so dark that she wouldn’t have seen him if it wasn’t for the milky white face she glimpsed under the hood. His long sleeves fell back to expose his skeletal hands—the protuberant veins making his fingers resemble large, silver spiders.
“Then don’t,” Saian’s voice was hard. “Tell me now. What are you doing here?”
She waited for Naira to answer. But the other woman’s eyes filled with tears. “I want you to win, Saian. I wish for both of us to take back Castle Rinfarr, to claim our rightful land. That’s why I came along with your army.”
“Our army, Naira. We found these women together.”
“But you taught them, befriended them, and even learned from them. You were one of them from the start. I never fit in.”
“We’ll speak of this later. Let’s head back already.”
Saian had turned to her stallion.
“No! Listen to me…” Naira’s voice was cracking, desperate. “You will not win this war, Saian. Not with this army…not with—not with women.”
Saian was shocked but she didn’t show it on her face. She looked at her sister dead in the eyes with a new coldness. “I am a woman. I forged this army. I protected you. I protected myself. Why don’t you believe that I can do this too?”
“Women are born weak, physically and mentally. Our bodies are frail and soft, vulnerable and easier to break. This is an army of seasoned soldiers we are facing—men. Tens of thousands of men. Men behind thick ramparts. Men with trebuchets, men with castle forged steel, men with more weapons than we can ever steal. We can’t do this.”
“I will not stop just because of your doubt and distrust, sister. Have pride in yourself and faith in me. You survived as Lais in the tavern, you survived as Naira in the army…till now. We will march tomorrow at first light. With or without you.” Her words were final.
Naira stepped forward, her hand reaching for Saian’s. “I am still your sister. Let me help…let me—”
A very soft, almost inaudible cough came from the hooded stranger. He croaked, “Well?”
Naira looked at her sister and Saian knew it was too late.
“Do it. I accept the price.” Naira said firmly and silence fell upon them. Saian didn’t understand what her words meant but the cloaked man did.
He lifted his hood from his head. Apprehension and a sort of fear had begun to roil in Saian. She recognized those bottomless black eyes, the thin, rotten purple curl of his lips. He had no hair but he had three ears. The dread in Saian’s heart grew heavier. He was a Veiled Trader. A formidable mage who had powers given to him from both the gods and the demons.
“No…” She sounded hoarse. “What have you done?”
“He can give us what we need to win, Saian! We will be unstoppable. Our entire army will take back Andrimos and even more land. We will rise to victory…for father.” Her eyes had glowed with hope but Saian could only recognize disgust in her muddle of feelings.
“Don’t you dare bring him up. Father would have fought with honor, on the battlefield with a sword in hand. A Veiled Trader takes what is equal of value to what you ask. Do you have any idea wh—?”
The mage interrupted with a sudden booming voice. One arm stretched toward the sky and the other pointed to the earth, he had declared, “The Rinfarr army will pay the price for strength and durability with beauty and age. By the powers granted to me by the gods above and the devils below, may the wish be granted and the price be paid forthwith!”
Saian’s body had begun to burn, contort, and melt. It started with her head of hair, the roots of each strand receding rapidly in a mass, replaced by rock hard scales and a leather scalp that devoured her skin. Claws seemed to be ripping away her flesh but there was no blood shed. She had screamed but not for long, because her mouth had begun to shrivel. In a moment her lips were gone. Her teeth shot out like blades and the slithery, thick thing that could wrap around a branch was her tongue. The surface of her skin on her arms had erupted into more grey scales, plating her like stone. Naira’s animalistic wails rang in her ears but all she could think of then was her army. They were suffering this right now, completely unaware of what was happening.
Her clothes laid in shreds about her feet, which were large, meaty slabs with toe nails almost as long as human fingers. The excruciating transformation didn’t seem to want to end; every detail of her as a woman was disappearing. Her genitalia were gone. Her chest was a solid wall of muscle, painted red where the rest of her was grey. When she tried to utter a sound a growl came out, not even of an ordinary animal but of an unnatural beast. She collapsed to her knees—too weak to adjust to her new, grotesque body, too weak to think. Her eyes were fluttering but she saw Naira on the ground next to her. There were tears trickling down her foul, warped face.
The monster was crying.
There was a sharp yellow glint above their heads. With the last bit of energy she had, Saian strained her neck to see what the Trader had in his hands. A yellow gem carved into a simple ring, on a string. He tossed it down and it landed on the ground between them. The glow coming off it was so bright it had blinded her.
He whispered to them, “Your release is the true sword.”
Then he sank into the shadows.