The Lesser Betrayal, chapter 1

CHAPTER ONE

Year 506, Segment 49

The 6th of Trevel

I can only see a kind of beauty in warriors who practice military order. I always have. Even when I was a little girl before starting my training and education at the academy, I held an appreciation or reverence for it. It is no different now with the gathering of these women for our academy scout exercises. We may call them games, but I’ve never met a warrior who didn’t approach one with all the seriousness of reality.

Keiya punches my shoulder. “What are you grinning at? We haven’t won yet.”

“I know. It’s our last one. I guess I was just thinking.”

“About?”

“How a part of me will miss this. At least, the military games. Not the social aspect.”

“Ashura, we graduate in forty-five days. In forty-six, we’ll be assigned to one of the military Scout Corps. The military exercises in our future will be bigger and more plentiful.”

“True.”

“Personally, I can’t wait to be done with this place.” She turns her eyes away to look out over the crowds around us. She always looks elsewhere when she’s about to mention her mother. “I wonder if she even bothered to get me a sword for graduation day.”

“If she didn’t, then you can have mine.”

She snorts. “That would go over well. I doubt Lady Ashen would appreciate–”

“Keiya, you know my mother. She probably has a sword for both of us just in case.” I don’t have to say more. She nods.

“Ashura! Keiya!”

I turn around to find the source of my older sister’s voice. She walks toward us at a confident pace. My heart swells. “Tesha! What are you doing here? I thought you were on duty!”

She laughs. “I am. My Scoutwarden sent me to wish you luck since my little sister and her best friend are about to break my record for winning this thing.”

I grip her in a hug. “Thank you.”

“I’m proud of you both.” The alarm sounds, calling us to the mock briefings. “You’d better go, Ashura. I love you. Have fun.”

“I love you, too. We will.”

Keiya and I walk over to our instructor who will be the Scoutwarden for these games. The briefing doesn’t take long. The enemy is somewhere to the south. Go find them. Report back.

The city of Estromeyn sits on high cliffs that guard the entire continent. With the sea to the east, any army south of Estromeyn will either move west to get further inland, or north to attack the city’s southern edge. Keiya and I head southwest, hoping to find the edge of the rear-guard, the command corps, or the forward troops. If we can catch one of their scouts and extract information, even better.

Disappearing into the perpetual twilight of Tellia is easy. Keiya and I stick to the darker patches of the forest where bioluminescence is weak or the plants glow in darker shades. I glance at the sea when we pick our way to the cliffs. The luminescent ocean water glows with shades of every color I can imagine, shedding light up into the black sky. From our high perch I can see down to great depths in the clear water. The plants reaching up from the ocean floor add their own colors to the glowing palette. Schools of bioluminescent fish make their way beneath the surface. The darker-colored species look like moving shadows. The waves roll in slowly, embracing the shore again, and again. I almost wish we could go wade in the surf. Maybe we will when the Scout Games are over.

Keiya takes her turn at point, moving silently. Suddenly, she stops. But her head is looking left toward the ocean. She has either heard something to her right, or she has seen something on the water. I assume it was a sound to our right, but she signals me forward and points out to sea.

Odd. I move beside her and let my eyes follow to where she’s pointing. I can’t identify what I see, but it’s moving slowly toward the beach. The small thing sits low in the water, and blends into the background of the ocean’s glow.

Keiya cups her hands around my ear and speaks with hardly any expiration. “What ith thath?” Replacing the letters s and t is a scout trick. Those consonants, even when gently spoken, can be heard at a distance.

I shrug my inability to identify it. The fewer spoken words, the better. “A boath?”

Keiya nods and signs that we should investigate.

I sign my agreement. We both know it’s not a fishing boat from Estromeyn’s harbor. Nor is it one of the Queendom of Hoqra’s warships or merchant vessels. But it is heading for land directly south of us.

We pick our way with slow and silent steps until we’re near the place where the boat would have beached. Staying under cover, we creep closer. Keiya stays in front of me and peers over the cliff edge. I can tell she doesn’t like what she sees as soon as she waves me over. I move toward her and peek down. The cliff here angles at a steep slope rather than the normal sheer wall. Someone has dragged a small boat to its base. Twelve men carefully climb toward us.

Keiya and I lock eyes. We both know men of Hoqra don’t waste time climbing cliffs. They work at trades and would never idle away time for fun without their wife.

I motion the sign for enemy as a question.

Keiya makes the sign back with a nod of her head.

Part of me wonders if this is part of the Scout Games or something more than a game. I sign that we should stay and see more so we can report it to our military.

Keiya agrees.

The first man pulls himself over the lip about thirty feet away from us. He removes a bundle strapped to his back and unrolls it to reveal a bow, a quiver, and a sword.

Armed men.

It confirms our suspicions about them. Only women are allowed to carry weapons in the Queendom of Hoqra. This could be an enemy scouting party from the Kingdom of Daedin, which means they’ll kill us without a second thought. Soon, all twelve men arrive at the top and arm themselves.

Keiya and I meet eyes. She nods her head in the direction of our city. I nod agreement. We need to leave. Now.

She takes a cautious step backward but an unseen twig snaps under her foot. Twelve men look in our direction with bows drawn and ready. They don’t speak. They listen and look as scouts are trained to do.

We run, and they let their arrows fly. They wiz by our heads, slam into trees, and kick up dirt at our feet. They probably don’t see us yet, but they know our general location and the direction we’re heading. Several of the arrows miss us by inches.

The men give chase. They won’t want us to raise the alarm. We’re only a few miles from the city but I don’t know if we’ll make it back. Keiya and I run as hard as we can, dodging trees and bushes as we thread serpentine tracks through the forest toward the safety of Estromeyn.

Every now and again an arrow buzzes past one of us and hits a tree. We’ll have a better chance to outrun them if they keep stopping to shoot arrows. But if one of those arrows hits us, we’ll die. Even if the arrow doesn’t kill us outright, the scouts would do unimaginable things. Then they will dishonor our bodies. Then they will kill us. It’s been done before. Men of Daedin hate women of Hoqra. It provides strong motivation to keep running hard in spite of my burning lungs.

We burst out of the tree line into the open perimeter that separates the forest from the city, screaming to get the attention of a sentry on patrol near the middle of the clearing. Words only come in short bursts.

“Daedin… Scouts… Behind us!”

The sentry immediately unslings her bow, nocks an arrow on the string, and scans the trees. We get to her right as an arrow sinks into her neck. She falls to the ground, wounded yet alive. A groan of gurgled breath escapes her. She pulls a whistle from her robe pocket and reaches out to me.

I stand for a moment, stunned by the arrow in the woman’s neck. Blood oozes from the wound. My stomach turns. The sentry tries to speak the word, “Blow!” but no voice comes, just a whisper of bubbles and air. It snaps me out of my stupor. I grab the whistle and blow a loud shrill note.

Another arrow finds the sentry’s outstretched forearm, cracking both bones. The arrow would have hit me in my abdomen if her arm hadn’t been there. The sentry’s arm drops to the ground. Keiya and I both hear when she gurgles, “Run, girls!”

We obey, sprinting away as arrows miss us by the breadth of a hair. Then I hesitate. I can’t leave the sentry undefended like this. The scouts will kill her.

I turn around as one of the Daedin men breaks into the open. I dodge the arrow he releases, dive for the sentry’s sword, and draw it from its sheath.

The Daedin scout laughs as he rushes to attack.

Anger surges through me. Men don’t laugh at warriors of Hoqra.

Not ever.

The scout draws his sword and raises it. His strike comes down from right to left. I parry the attack with my sword, guiding his away to my right. He launches a back-fist with his right hand, clipping my cheekbone and turning my head aside. But I keep my balance.

“ASHURA!” Keiya screams somewhere behind me.

The scout pulls his sword hard to his right in a strike parallel to the ground, but I’ve moved inside the arc of his swing, too close for his sword to be useful. I spin and slam the pommel of my sword into his chest while guarding my left side from his blade.

My strike knocks him back a step and wipes the smile off his face.

“Stupid girl!” he spits.

He raises his sword and dives at me to cut me in half from head to toe, but I thrust my whole body at him hard and fast. I watch in horror as my sword pierces the man’s lower chest where his ribs come together. It seems to happen in slow motion, but I don’t stop pushing until my grip-guard meets his chest. Only then do I look at his face.

I know I’ve killed him, though he hasn’t died yet. His sword falls out of his hand. Blood gushes up from his throat and out his mouth. His eyes find mine. The hatred has gone, replaced by disbelief, even a horrible regret.

He knows I’ve killed him, too.

“Stupid… Girl…”

He stumbles to his knees and falls sideways. The sword-grip slips from my hands as he drops.

I watch him laying before me on his side, struggling to breathe with a sword blade sticking out of his back, fighting to cling to life that refuses to stay.

“Stupid… Girl…” He sounds afraid now. Distraught.

His body trembles. His head droops unwillingly to his shoulder. His eyelids partially close.

“Stupid… Gir-” His voice became a lament. He sounded as if he would weep, but death would have none of it. He doesn’t move.

I hold my hands up and look at them. They tremble as his trembled a moment ago.

I killed him.

The air comes alive with the blare of Estromeyn’s alarm sirens and the wiz of arrows. I flatten myself to the ground as the arrows fly in both directions, telling me the city sentries have arrived in force. I look toward the forest in time to see two men disappear into the trees.

They’re running away.

Keiya screams my name again. Her voice draws closer.

Two sentries stop to either side of me with their bows trained toward the forest. Others surround the wounded sentry and tend to her.

Keiya drops to her knees and pulls me up. “Ashura, are you okay?”

I can’t speak. I don’t know the answer. I’m alive, but am I okay? I glance at the dead man. His half-open eyes are looking at me. Accusing me. I close my eyes and turn away. I can’t answer.

The major in command of Estromeyn’s Sentry Corps kneels down in front of us. “My sentries told me what you did. What is your name?”

I blink at first, unable to answer. The major addresses me using formal speech, which confuses me further. I haven’t come of age yet. My fortieth birthday is five segments away. “I… I am… Ashura, daughter of Lady Ashen.” I reply with formal speech, as I always address a warrior. No contractions, perfect grammar. It shows respect and honor.

The major smiles. “I know your mother, Ashura. You have done well. You protected one of my sentries and perhaps saved her life. I thank you. Your mother should be on her way but I shall send word for her immediately.” She looks up at one her sentries. “Find Major Ashen, commander of Eighth Regiment. Tell her Ashura is safe, but to come to me as soon as she can.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” The sentry runs off in the direction of the city.

More sentries arrive every second. “You two stay here for now.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Keiya says. “I shall care for her.”

I feel too numb to respond.

The major nods to Keiya, stands up, and moves off while shouting orders for her troops.

Keiya gets in my face, looking concerned and scared. Maybe a little angry.

“Why didn’t you run, Ashura? She told us to run. I thought you were going to be killed!”

“I…” I look at the wounded sentry being cared for by several men and women. “I’m sorry, Keiya. I… I couldn’t leave her. They would have killed her.”

“Great. You’re stupid and brave.” She dives at me for a hug but quickly pulls away in disgust. “Ugh, gross, Ashura! You wet your pants!”

I look down at my lap. Yes, I did. “Do you think the major noticed?”

“It doesn’t matter. It won’t change what she thinks of you.”

I look at Keiya, feeling close to tears. But I don’t want to cry. “What do you think of me? I killed him. I… I killed him, Keiya.”

“I think you’re my best friend. I’m glad you’re alive and he’s dead.” She takes my hand. “I was really scared for you.”

“Ashura?” My mother jogs toward us with the sentry major. Mother kneels down to look me in the eyes. “Are you injured, Ashura?”

“No, Mother, I am uninjured.”

I’m hurt, but not injured. I’ve learned the difference. The side of my face throbs where the scout hit me with the back-fist. I know it must be bruised and swollen. I know Mother sees it.

She smiles softly. Pride glints in her eyes. “Good. I was worried for you, my daughter.” Her gentle but strong voice fills me with strength. She, too, uses formal speech. I think it means she’s proud. She always uses familiar speech with me. “How many scouts are there?”

“Eleven now.” I glance toward the dead man.

A captain runs up to us. “Major Ashen, my company is here and the others are on their way. What is going on?”

The sentry major answers. “These young warriors discovered a scouting party and raised the alarm. I heard the whistle and ran here with my sentries. Lady Ashen’s daughter fought and killed this Shock Scout after one of my sentries was wounded. The cowards fled as soon as we arrived. We are chasing them now.”

Mother stands to address the captain. “Get word to the Academy Headmaster. I need the Scout Games suspended immediately. Send a platoon to reinforce the sentries chasing the enemy scouts. I want my Scout Corps to turn over every stone in the forest south and west of Estromeyn. I need to know if there’s an army out there, or if it’s only a scouting party.”

“We saw where their boat came ashore, Lady Ashen,” Keiya interjects. “It is a few miles south of here.”

Mother nods. “You heard Keiya, Captain.”

The captain grins. “I’ll send two squads with a sublieutenant to check it out immediately. A few miles south, Keiya?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Mother looks at the captain. “Set up a defensible perimeter around this side of the city alongside Sentry Corps. We’ll wait here for word from my scouts.”

“Right away.” The captain salutes and runs off.

Mother looks at us. “I want you two to go home. Keiya, stay with Ashura. Do not leave her alone. Not after this.”

“Yes, Lady Ashen.”

Mother bends down to touch my face. “We will talk as soon I can get home, Ashura. It is not easy to kill another person, even an enemy.”

As a warrior, Mother knows from experience. I nod while trying to hold back tears. I have to change the subject before I lose control. “Mother, where is Tesha?”

“Your sister is with her company. Go home now. I will see you later.”

Mother runs toward her troops, shouting orders at another company that’s just arrived.

Keiya stands up and pulls me to my feet. I stare again at the man I killed and shudder. I can’t tear my eyes away from his corpse. His dead eyes staring. His dead mouth twisted, bleeding, and gaping in pain he no longer feels. I didn’t know death looked so ugly, so terrible.

Keiya pulls me toward her, forcing my eyes away from the horror. “Come on, Ashura. I need to get you home.”

She holds my hand as we walk. I still don’t know what I feel. How should I feel? The image of the dead scout has lodged itself in my mind’s eye. I see the blood running from his mouth and expanding across his chest and back. His accusing death gaze. The sword lodged in his body. The sword I put there.

I killed him.

I saw the fear and anger in his eyes. I heard the regret and disappointment in his voice. I took his future away from him. I stole his hopes and dreams. Is it odd that I know his feelings better than my own? My mind is out of control. My thoughts, everything is out of control.

By the time we arrive at my front door, uncertainty fills my being. I no longer know if I’m a warrior or a coward.

——

Tesha checks on me late at night. The light from the hallway floods the room enough that I can see Keiya sleeping in my sister’s old bed. She stayed the night because Mother told her not to leave me alone.

I look up at Tesha. She’s sixteen segments older than me, and beautiful in ways I can’t describe. I’ve always wanted to be like her. Her slender frame belies the skilled warrior she is. We have the same wavy, dark-brown hair, the same almond-shaped light blue eyes, the same thin nose, the same oval face. But I love her eyes the best. They simply dance with intelligence and confidence.

She tells me that I look just like she did when she was thirty-five segments old, but I don’t really believe her. I could never be that pretty. But oh how I wish I could be!

She brushes back my hair and leans down to kiss my forehead. When I was little, she did that every night. I couldn’t go to sleep without her kiss. She made me feel safe. Now she kneels down and rests her head on my bed. “Hey, Little Sister.”

“Hi Tesha.”

“How are you? Mother told me everything. Actually, a lot of people told me everything. I think everyone in the city knows what you did.”

“Great.” I try to sound indifferent.

Tesha frowns with a face full of concern. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

I shake my head. “I don’t know, Tesha. All I can think about is the scout.”

“What about him?”

“I killed him.” I dissolve into tears. “He looked at me as he died. I can’t get his face out of my mind. I know he was an enemy. I know he would have killed me. But I can’t stop thinking about how awful it was to watch him die. How horrible it must have been to be him in that moment.”

“Ashura, that scout was responsible for his own death. You didn’t attack him, he attacked you. You defended a sentry that he, or one of the people with him, nearly killed. You were unarmed and wearing academy robes. He probably thought you were an easy kill. He made his choice and lost.” She runs her fingers through my hair again. “You can’t blame yourself. He killed himself by attacking the wrong warrior.”

“I don’t feel like a warrior. I feel like a coward.”

“A coward?” Tesha cocks her head to the side. She always does that when she thinks. “Haven’t you heard the story of what you did? Let me tell you what the warriors across Estromeyn are talking about tonight.

“During the Scout Games, two girls from our academy, Ashura and Keiya, tracked down and outran twelve elite Shock Scouts from Daedin. They raised the alarm with the Sentry Corps. When one of the sentries was almost killed, the younger of the girls, Ashura, daughter of Major Ashen, picked up the sentry’s sword and defended her as the scouts attacked. Our sentries saw Ashura’s battle as they ran to the source of the alarm. Though she seemed to be no match for the enemy she faced, the sentries say Ashura killed the Shock Scout easily. They knew they had witnessed the birth of a warrior.”

“Did they tell you I wet my pants because I was scared?”

“You’re not a coward, Sister. I would have wet my pants, too. Do you have any idea how much bravery it took to do what you did? You are alive and he is dead. Today, my little sister proved to a city that she is someone to respect. I have been introduced to people I don’t know as ‘Ashura’s older sister’ more times than I can count.” Tesha grins at me. I smile back. I can’t help but smile when she does. “I’ve been interviewed a thousand times by warriors who want to know what you’re like. I love you, Ashura, and I’m proud of you. I’m glad you’re safe. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

“Where’s Mother? Is she home yet?”

“No. She was conferring with the generals. I wanted to wait for her but she told me to come check on you, and to kiss my children. She shouldn’t be long, but don’t stay up. Go to sleep.” She kisses my head and stands up.

She looks dangerous in her military robes and sword. Dangerous and beautiful, like a warrior of Hoqra should look. I still want to be like her. “I love you, Tesha.”

She smiles at me. “I know. Now go to sleep.” Tesha walks over to check on Keiya. Then she leaves my room–her old room–and closes the door. She leaves me in darkness again, but perhaps there’s less darkness inside now than before she came in. Tesha always protects me, even from myself.

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