HARD CROSSING AT LUHINMOV FORD



HARD CROSSING AT LUHINMOV FORD, by Adrian Simmons

 

1.

 

Cawella Five-Tongues inspected her two spotted horses while the armies waited for the decision of the kings.

The horses remained calm, untroubled by the delays of protocol. It would not be a chariot duel, so they had little to worry over.

Across the field, the forces of the Pagchal tribe waited, a great rabble of men and women and spears and horses.

“There are not nearly as many as I had thought there’d be,” her man, Ruvnol, said, looking up from where he sharpened the bronze tips of her javelins. “Still, how badly do you think we’re outnumbered?  Four of them for every one of us?”

Cawella glanced out at the forces of her own people.  I’d guess we’ve got one third the number of our enemies, Ruvnol.  King Walonnal’s gotten himself cornered like a badger in a barn.”

“The swollen waters of Luhinmov Ford have cornered us on the one hand,” Ruvnol admitted, drawing a whetstone across a javelin’s already razor-sharp edge. “But Walonnal has you, who can yet even the odds.”

Cawella didn’t answer. She knew full well the role she played in the games of kings and the business of tribes.  Everybody in their small force, and most of those on the other side of Mag Luhinmov knew of her reputation.

She ran her hand across her horse’s nose, wondered briefly what was going on behind its great brown eyes, then snatched up her skull-cracker.

“I’m going for a walk,” she said, hoisting the light club over her shoulder.

It was the waiting, she was sure of it. That’s why she felt so bad.  Like her feet were heavy and her legs exhausted; that and the summer heat.  She glanced west; there was still a lot of daylight left, at least four hours.

She wiped her brow as she walked. She had shed her leather armor and had left her helmet behind, but she was still burning up.  Hopefully all the eyes that glanced at her as she passed did not think she was nervous.

“Ho, Cawella,” Mulcan called, showing her his right palm, “you look nervous.”

Mulcan, King Walonnal’s male champion, was a big man, as tall as she was but easily twice as heavy.

“And you look fat,” she answered.

“How long can they argue?” he asked, nodding toward the knot of people in the middle of the field, where the two kings met to discuss the formalities of the impending hostilities. “Every season it’s the same.  There are arguments about evenly matched forces, who gets to wait at the top of the hill and who has to run up.  Then you and I go out and trade throws and blows with some would-be hero. We win; Walonnal gets his way; let’s just get on with it.”

“You sing a different song when the moon’s waning and such matters are settled by men champions. Then you’re fine to wait for the morning.”

He rocked back on his heels, grinning. “Merely to let everyone get a good night’s sleep.  The duel can wait until dawn, but these endless deliberations! Have they got nothing better to do?”

The two kings had been playing chase for almost two months. Walonnal trying to catch King Fonnhal when the moon waned so that he could put Mulcan to field to duel, and Fonnhal trying to catch Walonnal under a waxing moon so he could put Aslanuw out.  And, thanks to the swollen waters of Luhinmov Ford, the chase was over.  And thanks to the waxing moon, King Fonnhal would surely put his unbeatable monster out against her.

“Have you seen Aslanuw?” Mulcan asked. “I’ve not seen any sign.”

“I haven’t really looked,” Cawella said. “I imagine she’d be hard to find. I’ve heard her stature is much less than her reputation.”

She hadn’t looked, but her man Ruvnol had. He’d seen no trace of this tiny terror that Fonnhal was using to bully his neighbors.

She wiped at her brow again, her belly was quaking beneath her skin.

Mulcan took a long look at her, then let the boastful talk of champions fall aside and whispered: “Cawella, I don’t know about this one.  Aslanuw is dangerous, even for you.  This won’t be a contest of skill, it’s going to be a duel to yield or death.”

“I’ve had,” she counted the tongues, flattened, dried, and hanging from her belt, “…five of those already. Maybe you’re nervous for me, since you’ve only had two?”

She smiled, her own boastful talk easing her mood.

“This isn’t the same, Cawella, she’s not normal-”

“Tulv was giant-kin and you beat him-”

“Tulv could be cut, his skin wasn’t a hide of unbreakable scales!” Mulcan snapped back.

“Exaggerated rumors,” Cawella answered, knowing full well that they were not. “Some say I’m seven feet tall.”

“You don’t look nearly as tough as you talk,” Mulcan said. “You don’t look good at all.”

“I’m not afraid of Aslanuw Dragon-Skin, Mulcan-”

“You should be-”

“-it’s the heat. I’ve been bouncing in a chariot for two days and the sun’s out full and I need a little time and a little whiskey and a little shade.”

She turned toward the trees that lined Luhinmov Ford.   Shade waited there, relief from the oppressive heat.  “Give me these things, and Aslanuw will wish she’d never left whatever backwater spawns the likes of her.”

Before Mulcan could answer she left him behind, her long legs eating up the distance between the plain and the trees.

The shade hit her like the first drop of a welcome rain. Before she could make it to the small trickling creek that ran through the woods to join the swollen river, her stomach heaved and she stumbled.  She balanced against an elm as the world spun and a second jolt of nausea tore through her.

Cawella crumpled next to the tree and vomited.

Four more heaves wracked her tall frame, each so hard she feared her ribs would crack.

Her vision blurred and splotches of light mixed into the dappling shadows beneath the trees. Cawella spit, wiped at her forehead then her mouth, and marched to the creek.

Pooling water in her palm, she splashed it over her face. She did it a second time, then dropped to her knees and simply dunked her whole head.

She sat up, letting the icy water flow from her hair, down her face and neck, and into the course linen of her tunic. It flowed between her breasts, tightening her nipples before running over her furious stomach.

She felt better, instantly and immensely. Maybe she could just sit here, camp by the stream and have Ruvnol come fetch her when the time came.

But Ruvnol was already looking for her, had already found her. She heard him as he approached.  With the title of champion had come Ruvnol, like a doting uncle eager to keep his dangerous nieces well fed and armed.

“Cawella, are you all right?”

Her man stood behind her, at a respectful distance.

“No, Ruvnol,” she said, cupping water over her head once more. “I’m pregnant. It’s always like this for the women in my family.  Early on.  Especially the first”

For a few moments only the trickling of the creek and the buzzing of the gnats along its shores made any sound.

“You shouldn’t fight,” Ruvnol said finally, “you shouldn’t be champion again until after the child is born and lives long enough to be named and-”

“I know!” She turned to look at him, to make him squirm in her gaze.  “I know it’s taboo, I know it will offend the gods- several of them at once.”

“You especially shouldn’t go out against her now,” Ruvnol said. “Think of your new husband if nothing else.”

“It’s only a five year arrangement, Ruvnol. King Fonnhal won’t stop, not as long as he has Aslanuw.  They’ll continue to raid and demand tribute, maybe even as far as Oltroma itself.  Do you want me to go back and wait for them with Allhil?  Wait until I’m too far along to fight anyone, much less such a fierce opponent as Aslanuw?  And if I don’t go out to Mag Luhinmov to fight Aslanuw Dragon-Skin, who will?  You?”

“It’s not proper for men to fight women, even champions-”

“And a good thing, too. Mulcan is even scared of her.”

She stood up, stood to her full height and swung her skull-cracker through a lazy arc that bent back reeds and weeds along the bank. “I’m sick, I’m breaking taboo.  I left Oltroma and my husband behind, I left knowing that I was with child and did not have to.  I left, and I came here, to beat Aslanuw Dragon-Skin.”

Her father had made the skull-cracker for her, had chipped out the flint and wrapped the handle in ox hide. A gift to his daughter before she set off to learn the ways of combat, before she served her three seasons at King Walonnal’s whim, before she had feats of skill that were spoken of in the same breath as her name.  Before she had the fame of a champion.

Her skull-cracker was a simple weapon, good for one thing. Not moody like her broadsword, or haphazard like her javelins.  Simple.  Honest.  She wasn’t being honest and her rumbling stomach panged her about it.

“If–when– when I beat Aslanuw Dragon-Skin, I will be the most famous female champion since the Tav-Gul crossed the Ghost Sea in my great-grandfather’s time.” It was something her father and her husband wouldn’t understand.

She looked back to Ruvnol, to see if he did. The expression on his lined face was unreadable.  Shadows and light played over his features as the wind blew through the trees.

“You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?” she asked.

He looked shocked, offended even. “No!  I’m your weapons-bearer.  I keep the blades sharp, the horses fed, and make sure you don’t get too drunk after you win a duel.”

“So you’ll help then? Help me to–” she counted out the problems on her right hand, “–beat the unstoppable Aslanuw Dragon-Skin, hide my condition from King Walonnal and everyone else, and help me puzzle a way to atone for this taboo with the gods?”

“Where do we begin?”

“Watercress. Find as much of it as you can, that helps with the sickness, or so my sister said.  And whiskey, that helps with everything.  And try to make me a small pot of boiled barley.  That stays down.”

 

2.

 

“The contest is this,” King Walonnal announced, “the champions will fight, on foot, beginning one javelin throw’s distance away from each other.”

Walonnal was a big man, with a wide mouth and a big smile, both hidden in his thick beard and proud moustache. Maybe it was a trick of the flickering firelight, but his hairline seemed to have receded over the three years Cawella had been his champion.

“Should Aslanuw defeat Cawella Five-Tongues, I have vowed that I will face King Fonnhal’s army with the forces I have here. If Cawella wins, then Fonnhal will send a portion of his warriors to watch the battle but not participate, so that it will be a fair fight.”

Seated on the ground beside Mulcan, Cawella whispered to the male champion: “Two hours of negotiations for that?”

“Shhh,” he shushed back.

“Feast tonight, my friends,” Walonnal said. “Eat well and drink well.  Tomorrow we shall put this troublesome king and the best of the Pagchal tribe to the run!”

Shouts and cheers rose up from the assembled company, filling the great hide-tent. Servants set a deer on a spit over the great fire in the tent’s center. Cups and horns were lifted high and then drained. Cawella’s lips touched her thick ale, but she only let the smallest sip through.

Venison. Not her first choice.  Plus, she was already stuffed with watercress and boiled oats.  She sipped at her ale, and picked at her venison, and let everyone assume that anxiety about the next day was at the heart of her weak appetite.

She would actually let them think it was fear! Oh, the goddesses were already getting a payment on whatever it was she would owe them.

Ruvnol kept his place at the edge of the tent, where the various servants and lesser family members of important personages sat. She watched him, he watched her.

Walonnal discussed strategy with his strong farmers and chieftains. He made a few decisions not related to tomorrow’s conflict and sent runners back to Oltroma, his seat of power.  One would not guess that his fate would be settled tomorrow morning.

He seemed calm and at ease, and that made everyone else calm and at ease. Another reason, she supposed, he was king.

Aslanuw wasn’t the only bit of the Otherworld afloat in the land. There were other things, and things from the Afterworld, for that matter.  Or old relics from peoples long gone.  Then there were the giant-kin, and the feats of druids.  Yet Walonnal had held his own against it all, with men and women eager for fighting, druids loyal in their own way, and the strong spines of champions.

Cawella waited for him to break out the whiskey, as was tradition, but time seemed to drag on and on inside the tent. The smoke grew oppressive and the fire seemed too hot no matter how far away from it she scooted.

Sweat, a tiny trickle of it, started right behind her ear.

At last Walonnal ate his fill, drank his horns and called for the whiskey.

Servants brought out two small jugs of it and all around the tent, people drained their cups and horns. Cawella simply dumped her ale out on the ground beside her, shrugging at Mulcan when he gave her a questioning look.

“Cawella!” Walonnal called, waving her over to him. “Let me pour yours myself.  A humble gesture from a grateful king.”

She stood up, her stomach complaining, and walked to him before handing her empty clay cup to him.

“A good full draught, Cawella,” he said, pouring into her cup, “that’s what’s needed. I’ve heard that Aslanuw can’t stomach the fire-water.”

She managed a smile; the king’s mood was infectious.   “One of her many weaknesses.”

Laughter lifted around her. With fires and food and whiskey all dangers seemed smaller.

She gave a polite bow before taking the cup and downing it all in two great gulps. Fire-water galloped across her tongue and down her throat, crashing into her belly.

“Go on,” she urged, passing the cup back to him, “give me Aslanuw’s share, too!”

More laughter erupted around her, Walonnal poured her a second cup (most of second cup) before slapping his palm down on his knee and bellowing out guffaws.

“Such spirit!” he said, “your fame will burn like a forest fire, consuming all who oppose it.”

That was the stuff! Better than whiskey, better than sex, better than proud warriors yielding.  Praise from kings, and the unspoken acknowledgement that every strong farmer and chieftain’s fate stood on her shoulders.  And he was a king, with historians and poets.  He could make it happen, her immortalization.

She took a drink, basking in its flavor and in the glow of adoration. He couldn’t stop her fame after she beat Aslanuw.

“And one more gift,” Walonnal said, picking out a very ordinary looking javelin from the quiver next to him. Ordinary save for a broken bronze tip.

He held it and fixed her with his powerful gaze. “When word reached me that Aslanuw Dragon-Skin was the female champion of the Pagchal I was not idle.  I asked among my advisors and druids for their advice.  I give you the fruits of their wisdom.”

He handed her the javelin. She sipped at her whiskey and took a look at it.  The tip wasn’t broken, it just wasn’t bronze.  She ran her hand over it.  Not bronze, or even ir-ron like the Tav-Gul used.  And not stone, it was surely metal of some kind.

“An arrowhead,” Walonnal, said, “an arrowhead from the Otherworld. One only, found among all the lands I control.  No fire will soften it, no hammer will dent it, and its edge is as keen as when it was first made.  A sharp tooth, set into gums of bronze, eager to bite through Aslanuw’s scales.”

All that talk of fame and fire, so boastful because he had a plan. Her heart sank into the depths of her stomach, to be jostled about in the tussles going on there.  Were the gods already punishing her?

She took another drink of her whiskey, which wasn’t helping nearly as much as her sister Vawnan had promised.

“It has an edge as keen as your mind, King Walonnal.” She held it back to him.  He looked confused for a moment, then the slightest flash of anger touched his face, to be immediately covered by a look of deep offense.

“Does it not meet with your approval, champion?”

“I think you’d best keep it. In case I lose tomorrow and Fonnhal sends Aslanuw after you.”

She wasn’t even facing the fire, why was her face so hot? She was sweating again, would have given anything to wipe her brow.  But one hand held the javelin, one her clay cup.

She lifted the empty cup to her lips, pretending to drink a swallow that wasn’t there, and waited for Walonnal to do something besides give her that look. He had never interfered in a duel before.  That’s why they dueled- it was a sacred ritual, above the interference of kings.

“For your safety, and that of the tribe,” Walonnal said, somehow making the word ‘tribe’ echo around the tent, “keep it.”

Watercress and barley were being routed inside her, running across a whiskey-flaming field. By the Moon!  Didn’t this tent even have a smoke hole?

She stabbed the javelin into the dirt at his feet. “Don’t interfere,” she said.  “I came here to beat Aslanuw, not to trick her.”

“I came here to turn back a pack of bandits for my people, not to feed the gluttonous appetites of a champion’s fame.”

“Perhaps you should choose another champion, then!” She didn’t mean to yell, but she did.  “Is there one, even one, brave enough to risk their lives on one single throw of a javelin?”

“Perhaps there is one smart enough to know that one throw is better than none!”

He was still sitting on his fancy folding stool. How could it seem she had to look up at him?

“How is this different than poison?” she demanded, startling a gasp of outrage from the crowd at the mention of the most despicable act one could stoop to at a duel.

“I’ll have to face five furious spirits in the Afterworld if I use your ‘gift’!” she said, pulling on one of the tongues that hung from her belt.

“And what plan do you have-”

“That is my affair,” she said. “You forget yourself by even asking.”

Then, before she threw up at his feet, she turned and marched toward the tent’s door.

She gave Ruvnol one brief pleading look and her man jumped up distracting everyone’s attention.

“Never!” Ruvnol shouted at the king, “Never in all my years have I seen such course treatment of a bold champion. May I not live long enough to see it again-”

She hit flap of the tent and stepped out into the cool night air. She pushed past the guards and jogged out past the ring of torches that surrounded the king’s tent.

She managed to get out of the light before her stomach’s rebellion was complete.

 

3.

 

“I’m sorry,” Cawella said. She knelt in the dew-wet grass and ran her hand along Rib-Eater’s blade.  “I’m sorry that I said you were moody.  You are a good, strong blade and I’m sorry if word has gotten back to you that I’ve said some things that disparage your reputation.”

She tucked the leaf-shaped broadsword back into its scabbard and then she turned to her brace of javelins, spread out and glittering in the morning light.

“I’m sorry I said you were haphazard.”

She checked them all, the six bronze tips, the four flints, and the two obsidians. “You’ve served me very well, you always fly true and have helped me gain many victories.  Especially you two, Gaff and Slasher.”

She checked the bronze tips, to make sure that Walonnal had not slipped his Otherworldly weapon into the quiver.

Cheers and roars erupted from across Mag Luhinmov. Aslanuw must be out and about.

“Are you ready?” Ruvnol asked, her leather armor slung over his shoulder, her bronze helmet hanging off his elbow.

She stood, “Yes. Just don’t tie it so tight.”  She held her arms out and he began to wrap her.

“Surely you’re not swelling already,” Ruvnol whispered, tying the first two panels together at her side.

“I want to be able to move. This won’t be a chariot duel.”

He grunted assent, then folded the third panel back across her chest to tie it at her other side. Next, he wrapped around the skirt of stiff leather strips to protect her long legs to the knee.  Lastly he tied her tongue-adorned belt around her hips.

She hung her quiver off her belt on the opposite side from Rib Eater and checked to make sure that her nameless triangular dagger was hanging off the back.

“I’ve got four shields here, how many do you want?” Ruvnol asked.

As she stepped up into her chariot she considered for a moment. “One, for the run.”

“Just one?”

“Just one.”

He handed an oval wicker shield to her. She leaned it against the wall of her chariot and put out her right hand in a palm-out salute.  “Make sure that you give Walonnal’s special javelin to my replacement if I fail.”

“Of course.”

She took up the reins and her whip, gave the horses a flick and the chariot rolled forward into t. Her tribesmen erupted into cascading roar of men’s and women’s voices.  She rode out, close to her own line, soaking up the adoration.  The sun was climbing over the trees and through the scattering of clouds.  It was not too hot, not too cold.

She drove a circuit around the force, saluting Luhinmov Ford and whatever spirit housed there, before returning to the middle of the line where King Walonnal and the various chieftains waited.  She backed her chariot up, Ruvnol came out and took control of her horses.

She couldn’t see Aslanuw’s chariot across the plain.

“Cawella!” Walonnal called, waving his tricky javelin over his massive bronze and gold helm.  “Take it!  If only for a last resort!”

It only made sense. Walonnal was less king now that they were on the field than comrade.  His concern was touching.

If she beat Aslanuw without it, she would be immortal. The greatest champion of her age; remembered long after Walonnal’s name fell into obscurity.

She raised her skull-cracker over her head and the cheering and howling drowned the king out.

Dropping the club into her javelin quiver, she stepped out of the chariot. She and Ruvnol began to walk to the middle of the plain.  Two sticks had been set up a javelin’s throw apart and they headed to the closest one.

From the other side of the plain thunderous applause sounded and Aslanuw Dragon-Skin appeared at last.

She was small and sleek, black hair spilled out from the back of the bronze helmet covering her head. Aside from that she wore no armor, wore next to nothing save a skirt of bearskin and a brace of javelins.  And her skin was green and gleamed in the morning sun.  Her man came with her, walking to the side.

Behind Aslanuw, Cawella saw several archers and slingers step out of the line. As one they drew arrows and loaded stones and began to launch them at their champion.

The arrows thumped off of her slight frame, bounding back into the air, some snapping in half. Stones also ricocheted off, or clanged against her helmet.  The girl’s face, long-jawed, sharp and angular, gave no hint as to whether the shots hurt or not, her amber eyes remained fixed on Cawella.   At last she yelled, a high-pitched keen long and loud, and lifted her weapons.  In one hand she held a club spiked with short bronze nails and long wyvern’s teeth, in the other she held up a simple bronze knife.

“The helmet is going to cause problems…” Cawella muttered.

The spectacle ended and Aslanuw took her place by her marker.   Aslanuw’s man walked out a bit further, lifted a stone so they could both see it, and then tossed it into the field between them.

The moment it touched the earth Cawella ran, one hand on her shield, the other digging out her spear, Slasher, from her quiver.

They traded throws on the run, Cawella bouncing three darts off Aslanuw’s chest and one off her thigh; Aslanuw lobbing two in Cawella’s general direction before hurling the last with deadly accuracy and force that Cawella caught in the weave of her shield.

Cawella yanked her skull-cracker out of the javelin quiver and threw her shield at Aslanuw’s charging form. The girl’s arm was a green blur as her club smashed it aside.

Two long and practiced strides, one forward, one to the side, carried Cawella nearly behind her foe. One smooth motion brought her skull-cracker down on top of the girl’s head, where the flint met the bronze of her helmet with the crunch of a chariot wheel on bad road.

Aslanuw’s legs wobbled, but she kept her feet. She let out a yelp and tried to swing her club out.  Cawella stepped inside the blow, catching Aslanuw’s elbow in her gut where the layers of leather protected her.  Cawella brought her skull-cracker down on her head again.  The girl grunted, slashing wildly with her dagger, which punched hard into Cawella’s leather armor, cutting into it but not through.

A blow powered by little more than a twist of her wrist brought the skull-cracker down hard into the cheek-guard of the helmet. Aslanuw’s feet faltered and she fell to one knee.  Her club slithered over the short grass of Mag Luhinmov and one of the long wyvern teeth hooked around Cawella’s ankle.

Cawella stumbled back, off balance, but freeing her foot. Aslanuw sprang up, plowing into her with a sharp shoulder.  It was a move so fast she had to have practiced it.

Cawella didn’t resist. Bouncing back and away with two long strides; she was a hair too far for the spiked club to catch her.  Two more steps and she watched as Aslanuw sucked in air over her pointy teeth, threw away her dagger and lunged with wild two-handed strokes of her club.

Cawella let one of the wild swings fly past, then brought her long leg up in solid kick that landed hard on Aslanuw’s ribs, knocking her back.

Her skull-cracker hit so hard on the side of Aslanuw’s helmet that the handle broke in half and the flint head hung by the brittle ox sinew wrapping.

Aslanuw fumbled and Cawella caught the faintest flash of dizziness in her yellow eyes.

The armies were cheering, howling, as if the swelling storms of their voices could determine the outcome. They yowled at the spectacle of one champion hammering the other, and one champion taking blow after blow like an anvil.

Cawella lifted her broken club over her head, eliciting fresh gales of cheers from both sides, then tossed the weapon at Aslanuw, who didn’t even bother knocking it aside.

The Dragon-Skin rushed again; Cawella ran to her, darting between the club’s swings like a crane lunging to catch a fish, and tackled the girl. She was light and small, and Cawella bore her down easily.  It was a bit harder weaving one long arm through Aslanuw’s armpit and around the back of her head, but in a few moments Cawella had done it.  Her left hand clutched the thick wiry horse-tail hair that spilled from beneath the bronze helm, and pulled her head up.

Cawella snatched her nameless dagger from off her belt and drew its point along the cheek-guards until it met the unbreakable scales of her face.

Aslanuw’s free hand swung crazed blows with her club. Cawella tucked her head down and the weapon grated against her bronze helmet.

She jabbed the dagger forward, catching once on hard scales, then jabbed again.

Aslanuw’s struggles doubled and she threw her club aside, digging her sharp fingernails into Cawella’s wrist. She snarled, words maybe, maybe just sounds of furious panic.

For a moment Cawella thought to throw her dagger aside and see if she could catch one of Aslanuw’s fingers and see if the joints were as unbreakable as the scales. She was almost certain that they were not.

But the Oschal had not come all this way to see broken fingers. Cawella’s head swam and her heart raced.  The yelling of both tribes, the adrenaline, and the fury of the duel was a far greater draught than any whiskey could hope to be.

Cawella pulled hard on the hair, holding Aslanuw’s head still on her neck, the dagger met something impenetrable, but yielding; the grip on her wrist dug in deeper.

Aslanuw was small and slight and could do nothing but shriek and scream as Cawella slid the dagger beneath her eyelid, into the jelly and blood.

Aslanuw wailed and writhed, but Cawella held her, all but one helpless arm that clawed madly.

Cawella heaved her up; turned her so that she could face back to king Fonnhal and any family that claimed her, so they could see the fall of their unstoppable monster, so they could see the tears and ruin flowing from her eyes, the spit that flowed from her shrieking mouth.

A gale of cheers sounded at her back, a wall of stunned silence waited in front of her.

“Yield,” she whispered to her struggling opponent. She pressed the dagger against the unpiercable lid of Aslanuw’s remaining eye.

Aslanuw spoke, a high pitched voice that begged for mercy, begged like any other youth confronted with her own frailty.

“Fonnhal!” Aslanuw wailed, “Fonnhal save me!  Save-”

Cawella shook her, hard. The cheers from behind were turning into calls for Aslanuw’s life.

“Say ‘yield’!” Cawella said. Explained.

“Yield! I yield!”  Aslanuw bellowed, and her man lifted both hands up and out in the motion of supplication.

Cawella threw her to the ground, as far from the spiked club as she could. Then she stood tall and blossomed in the light of adoration from her people.

“–beat her, without the blade from the Otherworld, beat her and made her yield!” Ruvnol said as he passed her, beaming and collecting her gear. “Legend!”

Across the field, King Fonnhal’s people were no longer shocked, but enraged. And, with a bit of reluctance, Cawella realized that they were not enraged at her, as much as Aslanuw.  Their faces held the looks that people give a mule that won’t carry anything more.

And King Fonnhal, he did not have Walonnal’s cool calm disposition. His thin face was a mask of fear, rage, and as he looked at his broken champion, disgust.

Aslanuw lay where she had fallen, her hands cupping the empty socket where her left eye had housed. Her small frame wracked with spasms as she wept, her whole body trembling.

Cawella’s victory was not so heady as she considered her foe with a professional’s detachment. Aslanuw was young, too young, and small, too small.  Her one trick, that awful hide of hers, had not been enough.  Her one skill, to hook the leg with her club and finish off an opponent with her knife, had not worked.  She had been, from the start, almost completely destined to defeat.

Aslanuw was a bully, nothing more, riding at the head of a force of bullies, who as one mind now realized that they were finally going to have a fair fight. They would suffer today, King Walonnal would see to that; and they would know that Aslanuw remained–mostly– invulnerable.

None offered any aid to their beaten champion. Even her man stayed away, watching.  Cawella took a step toward her, and the girl struggled, crawling away from her.

“Come, Cawella!” Ruvnol said, leading her horses to her. “Ride your victory circuit.  You’ve earned it this day!”

Her spotted horses looked back at her. They were nervous; stamping and shying away from the strange scent of the Dragon-Skin’s sweat.

Cawella stepped into the back, hefted up her broken skull-cracker again and gave her horses a flick. They ran hard, eager to get away from Aslanuw.

She looped the Oschal tribe once, keeping them at her honorable right side. Across the field and back around behind the force; a quick salute to the river ford; then back to the field.  Aslanuw lay in a crumpled mass.

Cawella struggled to keep her stomach under control. The jostling and rumbling of a chariot in the open field was usually one of her favorite activities, but now each bump and dip, each mouthful of dusty air and horse-scent, drove her stomach into fits.  Not now!  With so much done and so much more to do.

By the start of the second loop, Aslanuw had struggled to stand, and the jeers of the Pagchal tribe for their fallen champion mixed with the cheers of the Oschal tribe for their victorious one. Cawella cursed the distance around her force, cursed her condition, her husband, and the goddesses who punished her so cruelly.  What did they want?  At least they had not struck her with these cramps during the duel, but why strike now?  To shame her in front of her people?  No, she was certain that she could turn even the breaking of taboo into more fuel for the fire of her growing fame.

And what, then, would be her sacrifice? What would atone for it?  Or were the gods planning trouble for her in the battle to come?  And why could she not rid her mind of Aslanuw’s ruined panic-stricken face?  Why did each step of her horses make her feel worse, each cheer ring hollow.

Surely someone in the throng would realize that she was a sham, that nobody should make such a fuss about beating up an adolescent– a puppy thrown into a dogfight.

By the start of the third loop, Aslanuw was taking faltering steps back to her king, bearing her own weapons as her man kept his distance. Nobody shot arrows or threw stones at her to show off her unbreakable scales.  They waited; some screaming insults at her, most sullenly and hatefully silent.

Cawella’s mind spun as her belly, her womb where the first threads of her child were being tied together, where goddesses sent strange messages, tingled and writhed. She had been in worse duels, far more dangerous foes had assailed her.  Mulcan was in far more danger when he tangled with Tulv Giant-Kin.  He was big and mean and cunning.  Not some mongrel stuck halfway between this world and the Other, to be herded into danger.

As she swung around her tribe, she could see four or five of the Pagchal archers had stepped out of the line. The archers were launching darts, one after another, at Aslanuw; at her face.  The girl had dropped all but her spiked club and covered both eyes with one arm.  She had faltered to one knee.

Cawella stopped her chariot on the field, letting the cheers of her people cover her ragged panting, leaning against the chariot wall to support herself. There were taboos, and there were taboos.  Champions fought without fear of the opposing side meddling, champions returned without fear of their comrades turning on them.  But the Pagchal, to the very last of them, seemed not to care about the etiquette of war.

Before Ruvnol could take charge of the horses, Cawella wheeled them around and drove them across Mag Luhinmov toward Aslanuw’s back. The archers saw her coming, halted their sport and for a few moments did not know what to do.

Cawella drew Gaff out of the quiver and flicked the reins. The archers bent back their bows, and she lifted Gaff high.  All voices on the plain ceased and for a few moments the only sound was the rattle and thud of her chariot.

The girl half-turned and for the slightest moment Cawella caught a look of dull confusion on her face, but then her one amber eye fixed on her and Aslanuw’s expression became one of utter hatred.

But Cawella’s mind was already set; she’d drag the fool back if she had to.

Aslanuw turned and ran forward, pushing past the archers and toward her king. The line of the Pagchal closed about the girl and Cawella drew her horses up.  The archers waited.  Cawella was aware that the bulk of taboo rested on her.  It was forbidden to pursue opponents once they were back with their people, no matter how spiteful those people may be, to do so would undo her victory and set her tribe’s smaller force against the full bulk of the Pagchal.

She slowed the horses, eased Gaff back into the quiver, fought down her quaking insides, and memorized the face of the two woman archers.

The day was not over yet, for any of them.

 

4.

 

The kings met once more, for what reasons Cawella could only guess. The duels were sacred affairs and nobody would dare ignore the result, so the meeting was all for show, she supposed, and a waste of time before Fonnhal made the decision to send a quarter of his force away to watch the battle instead of participate in it.

Between the duel and the battle, Ruvnol had just enough time to gather three handfuls of watercress for her and she had barely enough time to eat it. Across Mag Luhinmov she had looked for Aslanuw Dragon-Skin, but saw no sign of her.  She looked at the knot of men and women who had been made to step aside from the battle, but she could not catch the gleam of the girl’s green skin there, either.

She had hoped to find Mulcan, the male champion, to talk to him, to someone who might understand, but there was no time. She had to get with the other women.  She stood with two chieftainesses between herself and the king on her right, and with the long ragged line of the women warriors off to her left.  Across the field the line of the women of the Pagchal tribe waited, extending from the knot of chiefs around King Fonnhal.

Things started as they always did, the chariot warriors rode out first. They thundered at each other across Mag Luhinmov, throwing javelins as they passed, then throwing again into the opposing force of footmen as they turned.  Around and around, like two wheels grinding at each other.  Normally she would be out there, collecting tongues, but not today.  She had let boastful talk of her horses already being worn from bearing the weight of her victory cover the fact that she felt sure that she couldn’t stand to be in a chariot for another minute.

As calm as she could be before a battle, with the occasional chariot charging out of the clouds of dust in front of her, its driver hurling spears eager for famous targets.   She waited for one steered by a woman, then took three long steps out and sent Gaff sailing through the air and into the side of the charioteer.

The woman lurched back, lost her footing and fell to the ground, rolling to a stop as her chariot rolled away, breaking the haft of Gaff in her tumbles before lying still. Cawella drew Rib-Eater and rushed out.  She hacked down shield, then arm then put an end to the groaning woman with one quick cut along the neck.

She wanted Fonnhal’s people to pay a heavy price for their reliance on Aslanuw. She wanted to set an example for the women of the Oschal, so that outside the furious fighting that surrounded the kings and chieftains, the battle would not degenerate into a shoving match as it often did along the far arms of the line.

She left the woman and back-peddled back to the line. Ruvnol would collect the tongue, split it, rub it with lye, and dry it later.

The army walked into the dust, the line breaking here and there to pass around a ruined chariot or wounded horse. The charioteers made two more passes in the narrowing gap between the two forces and then they circled around behind their sides leaping to join the footmen.

Walannol drew his sword and hefted his bronze shield and they all began to jog across the closing distance, then to throw javelins, sling stones, and arrows at their enemies. She caught two arrows in her shield, and at least one stone bounced off before they all broke into a final run.

“Find me Aslanuw!” she shouted to the women around her. “My horses and bronze to the one who points her out to me!”

Her shouting was drowned out as two waves foamed with bronze and flint crashed together on Mag Luhinmov.

And Cawella made more examples.

 

5.

 

“Ho, Cawella!” Mulcan shouted, waving at her and stepping in front of her horses. “This is not a time to go too far for trophies.”

Mag Luhinmov was a great mess. Chariots and horses and people littered it.  King Fonnhal had been captured, along with several of his chiefs, but others had fled, others had deserted, including that great knot of warriors who had not fought.  It was times like this, when chaos reigned that the many rules and taboos of the tribes gave way to revenge and murder.

“I’m looking for Aslanuw,” Cawella said, I didn’t see her in the company of King Fonnhal. I didn’t see her among the women, I haven’t seen her at all.”

“Spoiling for another go?” Mulcan asked, stroking the long nose of one of Cawella’s horses.  The chest-plate of his armor had a long cut across the stomach.  Lucky man. “Have other plans you want to try out on her?”

Her stomach flipped, it was the heat and the chariot, and the exertion– two hours of it. “Where is she, Mulcan, have you heard?”

“You’re going to drown her, right? Was that one of the plans?”  It was boastful talk and he, being a champion, could at least guess at her strategies.

“No. It would have been a long way to carry her to Luhinmov Ford.”

“She looked light enough to me.”

Yes, she was light. Yes Cawella had considered it.

“Surely you don’t want to go capture her?” Mulcan said, still not moving aside.  “Tie her with ropes and bring her back as a prisoner?”

“That was plan three,” Cawella confessed. She shouldn’t let her secrets out.  A champion needed them, needed to be clever.  But she was tired, and sick, and worried that her chance was fading with the end of this long day.

“Let her go, Cawella,” Mulcan urged, shedding his braggadocio and stepping to stand beside her. He looked up and whispered, urgently, “The one person that the Pagchal hate more than her is you, and the one person she hates more than the king who abandoned her is you.  Let it go!  Exuberate in the weight of the fame you’ve earned, don’t be crushed by it-”

“Abandoned her?” Cawella asked, leaning out of her car to hear. “What do you mean?”

“He claims he promised a boon to his archers if they shot out her other eye– as punishment for losing. She fled, ran into the woods not long after you got back to our line from your victory circuits.  That’s what he claims anyway.”

He shook his head, “That’s no way to treat a champion, even one as horrid as Aslanuw.”

“You’ve shown your courage,” he continued. “Don’t go out there, the sun will be down soon.  Aslanuw’s been beaten in every way.”

The woods were quiet. Eventually someone would come to Oltroma to ransom King Fonnhal, or Walonnal would send someone to their seat of power to do it.  There would be oaths exchanged and peace, as close as any of the tribes ever got to it, would be achieved.  And Aslanuw would be out there, somewhere, hating her more than anything else in this world or the Other.

“I thought of six ways to beat Aslanuw Dragon-Skin, Mulcan,” she said. “Seven, if you include Walonnal’s magic javelin.”

She had held her in her arms, lifted her slight weight up. It would not have been nearly as far to walk back to King Walonnal as it would have been to drown her in the river.

“It didn’t occur to me to take her to Walonnal, ask him for a boon to let me keep her, keep her away from weak kings and cowards, until well into my third victory circuit.”

The idea had been slow to come to her, forming sometime between the victory laps and the long haze of the battle: what she had to do to atone for breaking taboo.  But it was too late now.

“That, Mulcan, between one champion and another, that would have been courage.”

To have come home with fame and that one-eyed creature as a foster-daughter. It would have been a legend that would never die.  It would have made up for taboos and the unfairness of it all.  Of, what she would bet every ounce of bronze she possessed, the unfairness of Aslanuw’s whole life.  It would have been the great thing to do.

“You showed her mercy,” Mulcan said. “You waited for her to get the words out.  Some would have simply ended her on the spot.”

“To send her back to those dogs? You think that’s mercy?  To have her one eye become a sporting target?”

“You didn’t know that would happen.”

If she hadn’t been too slow, or too scared, to break her victory circuit and get Aslanuw, they never would have had a chance. That’s all it would have taken, to ride in front of her and offer her sanctuary.

Cawella looked out at Mag Luhinmov. Aslanuw could be an arm’s length behind the line of trees and she wouldn’t see her.  Her insides tingled, like cold water pouring over them.  She nodded to Mulcan and turned her horses back toward the Oschal.  Holding the reins with one hand she ran the other over the hard bull-hide over her belly. Fame and secrets weighing her down.

 

_______________________________________

Adrian Simmons’ genre nonfiction has appeared in Black Gate and Strange Horizons. His short fiction has popped up in James Gunn’s Ad Astra Magazine, Plasma Frequency, Outposts of Beyond, Strange Constellations, and the anthologies Apotheosis, and No Sh!t, There I Was.

 

 


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