Nikka sat astride her battle-panther at the gates of the city, watching the heavy grey clouds roll over the distant peaks.
“There, you see that, Nym; right there.”
Nikka pointed at the narrow brown column of dust barely visible against the green and yellow mountainside.
The massive panther uttered a throaty growl.
“Of course Som and Saja are with them. Saja’d never go do something foolish like getting killed. She’s got too much ambition.” Nikka watched the column for a minute. It barely seemed to be moving. “They’re going to get wet tonight.”
She tried to imagine herself among the horde, riding down from the battle plain. They were returning in shame again this year, just as they had every year she could remember. The nine hordes had been driven from the spire when she was a newborn infant, and had yet to reclaim it.
The clouds grew darker overhead, heavy with the promise of rain. They hid the sun, but offered no relief from the sweltering heat. Nikka closed her eyes and released some of the shadow draped over her thighs. The warm salty breeze cooled her exposed skin, making the heat a bit more bearable.
Eventually, big warm drops of water began to fall from the sky. Nikka looked up and smiled. The rain had come at last.
Fat raindrops poured from the sky, flooding the rice paddies that encircled the city. Soon, the paddies would be packed with brown-skinned workers in their white cotton skirts, planting rice seedlings. Soon, but not today; today was a festival day.
Nikka sat astride Nym outside the city gates again, but she wasn’t alone now. Thousands of people milled about, women and men talking in anxious voices as children ran and shouted. Their sisters, daughters, brothers, and sons were returning from war. There would be many joyous reunions today. There would also be many tears from those who waited in vain; many who rode to war would never return again.
Saja made it back, of course, mounted astride giant Som. She rode in front beside the Battle Queen, the place of honor. An expression of fierce pride adorned her face, masking her exhaustion.
Nikka urged Nym forward to greet her sister. The battle-panther pushed through the crowd and forced her way beside the larger Som.
“Hello, Little Sister.” Saja smiled, leaning over to rest her hand on Nikka’s shoulder. “I’ve missed your company.”
“I’ve missed yours as well, Saja. The city grows boring without your scheming.”
Saja laughed. “Good. I’ve dreamed up new plans for us; grand and glorious schemes that you will aid me in. But first, we must counsel with the Mothers.”
Nikka grinned and nodded. Saja was always up to something. It kept life interesting.
After a pause, Saja spoke more soberly. “Go greet Samma and comfort her. Damma was slain on the final day of battle. She died well, and rides with the Night Queen now.”
“What of Matta?” Nikka asked of her other sister.
Saja shook her head. “She’s with the baggage. Mym died early on, and she hasn’t been the same.”
Nikka shook her head. She’d raised her panther since she was a newborn kitten, and couldn’t imagine how it would feel to lose Nym. She couldn’t picture herself wallowing in misery, either. Even without a mount, a Shadow Witch was a powerful force.
“Go greet Samma, then return. I have much to tell you.” Saja instructed softly.
Nikka nodded and turned Nym. She found Samma further back in the horde and rode up beside her.
“Hello, Sister.” Samma sighed, exhaustion and grief written on her face.
“Hello, Sister. Saja told me of Damma. She died well.”
“She did. It took three of those filthy wolf-riders to take her down, and two died at her hand in the effort. The last one died in Syl’s jaws.”
Samma’s panther growled in agreement.
“Good. She rides at the Night Queen’s side, I am sure of it.” Nikka offered what comfort there was.
After a moment riding at Samma’s side, Nikka lifted her head. “I must return to Saja.”
“Of course.” Samma’s voice was resigned.
They did not speak of Matta’s shame. Nikka had never been very close to Samma; she’d always had Damma and Matta to giggle, conspire, and spar with. They made little time for their younger sister. Now one was dead and the other was walking in disgrace with the baggage. Samma was alone. Nikka felt bad for her, but knew her place was at Saja’s side.
Nym pushed her way back to the front, and Nikka rode through the city gates at Saja’s side. The procession wound slowly through the city as throngs of people welcomed the returning horde. It gave Nikka and Saja plenty of time to catch up.
Their conversation ended at the gates of the citadel in the center of the city. Inside the Mothers waited, lined up under a porch to keep the rain off their heads. Their skirts of black shadow fluttered in the warm breeze. Nikka looked for her own mother, standing in the center among the other High Mothers. She was old, well past her child-bearing years, her once black hair turned silver. She stood proud, the sides of her head still shaved in the manner of a warrior.
Nikka dismounted with the warriors and knelt to honor the Mothers.
“Stay by my side” Saja whispered as they stood again.
Nikka nodded mutely and sent Nym away with the other panthers.
The sisters of the horde followed the Mothers into the council hall. The Mothers seated themselves around the outside, the High Mothers on a stone dais at the front of the hall. Nikka stood beside Saja, who stood beside Rankala, the Battle Queen.
Rankala stepped forward, bowed deeply to the High Mothers, and spoke.
“I failed, Mothers. My sisters fought bravely, and many died, but it was in vain. Our sacred heritage remains in the hands of the highland wolf riders. Forgive me, I beg you.”
First Mother stood slowly. She was a wizened old woman, frail and weak now, her hair wispy and white. It was hard for Nikka to imagine her ever being young enough to ride a panther to war.
“Your plan was bold, Rankala, and we had high hopes.” She croaked. “Tell me now, why did it fail?”
Rankala shook her head. “They arrived first on the battle plain, and already held the lower ford when we came through the pass.”
The mothers all nodded and muttered to themselves for a moment. It was a familiar story.
“There is something more you should know.” Rankala said after the Mothers were quiet again. “In years past, their wolves were no match for our panthers one-on-one. This year, more than a dozen of their riders had wolves bigger than any we’ve seen. One rode a gold-haired wolf as large as Som. It was a vicious beast with an equally vicious rider.”
Nikka listened to the whispers of dismay that rippled through the Mothers. Old First Mother raised her hand for silence.
“This is grave news indeed.” She croaked. “But not unanticipated. We have seen the wolves growing larger and fiercer with each generation. Like us, they surely have breeding programs. Our own panthers grow as well.”
“They do, Mother.” Rankala agreed. “But not at the pace the wolves grow. Nor do we field unmounted panthers as they do wolves. We must employ a new strategy to counter their growing advantage.”
“What do you propose?” First Mother asked.
Rankala bowed her head. “First Mother, I am of age to join the Mothers, and a new Queen must lead my sisters to battle when the rain ends. She, not I, should present a plan.”
First Mother nodded slowly. “It is as you say, Rankala. We must elect a new Battle Queen. But first we must thank you, Rankala, Battle Queen. You did not achieve your objective, but you served us well.”
First Mother bowed her head in deference, and the other Mothers followed.
Rankala bowed deeply. “It was my honor to serve you, my Mothers.”
“Come now, my child, and join the High Mothers. You will bear many proud daughters who will fight in years to come.”
Rankala stepped humbly onto the dais and was embraced by First Mother. Nikka admired the juxtaposition; fierce young warrior beside wise old mother.
First Mother spoke again, “There are others among the horde that are of age to join the Mothers. Join them now, with my blessing. You have served your people well as sisters in arms. Now serve your people as mothers.”
From the hudreds of sisters in the horde, a small number stepped to the sides to sit among the Mothers. Nikka knew that less than a third of the sisters her age would survive to become Mothers. It was sobering to consider.
“Now, Rankala, my sister,” First Mother croaked “Tell me if there is one among your sisters most deserving to lead the horde.”
“There is, Mother. Saja, my most trusted sister, has proved her leadership and prowess repeatedly. I would see her lead my sisters to war.”
Saja took Nikka’s hand and squeezed it.
First mother eyed Saja thoughtfully. “She is a cunning warrior, zealous and spirited. I do not doubt her sisters would follow her. I wonder, though, if she is not a bit too ambitious for her own good.”
Nikka sensed the tenseness in Saja’s body at the implication. To her surprise, her sister released her hand and calmly stepped forward to bow deeply to First Mother.
“May I speak, Mother?” she asked humbly.
First Mother smiled and nodded.
“I am indeed ambitious, and I see the wisdom in your caution.” Saja said calmly. “Which is why, if you were to honor me by naming me Battle Queen, I would name Nikka my First Lieutenant.”
Nikka flinched at the unexpected mention of her name. She had never been to war, and knew virtually nothing of the battle plain. Saja’s proposals was unprecedented, the sort of thing only she would dream up. It caused a stir among both sisters and Mothers.
Saja spoke over the sussurations. “Nikka knows my heart. She is young and observant. She sees much that I overlook. She is naive where I am jaded, complex where I am simple. I have greatly missed her thoughtful wisdom on the Battle Plain. She is my balance.”
Nikka saw the cleverness in Saja’s proposal. The entire Shadow Realm was built around balance. The Mothers couldn’t fail to appreciate the symmetry.
First Mother smiled also. “What do you say, young Nikka? Would you act as a counter-balance to your sister? Would you speak your mind, or would you let the haughty pride of your elder sisters cow you?”
Nikka spat at the ground in defiance. “Nobody cows me, First Mother.” She stated boldly. “Not even Saja.”
The old woman smiled broadly. “No, you are not one who will be dominated or silenced. I have watched you, young Nikka. I see much potential in you.” She turned to Saja again. “I am satisfied by your answer, Saja. I approve of Rankala’s nomination. What say you, Mothers? Will you affirm Saja as Battle Queen?”
The Mothers voiced their agreement.
“Sisters of the horde, will you follow Saja as your Battle Queen?”
The horde shouted their agreement. Nikka felt flush with pride and excitement.
First Mother raised her hand to silence the sisters. “I name Saja Battle Queen, and give her unlimited authority over the armies of the city.”
The horde clamored their approval again.
Saja bowed deeply. “I humbly accept, First Mother, and name Nikka my First Lieutenant.”
“It is done” First Mother rasped. “Tell me now Saja, Battle Queen, what plan do you have for your army?”
Saja smiled. “First Mother, for fifteen years, our failure has been rooted in a single cause: the wolf-riders have consistently arrived first on the Battle Plain. We have allowed them to control the battleground. Our success rests in arriving first and taking control from the start.”
“I think you will be pleased with the progress.” Nikka explained as she rode beside Saja.
In the flooded rice paddies to either side, hundreds of men and women waded through the muck planting careful, neat rows of rice shoots. They all seemed to move together in rhythm; step, stoop, plant. Saja seemed mesmerized by it, watching the workers as they rode in silence.
“Will it work?” She finally asked. “Everything rides on it.”
Nikka shrugged. “She says it will work. I believe her.”
Saja nodded thoughtfully. They rode on in silence for several more minutes.
“There.” Nikka prompted, pointing down a narrow path between paddies.
The panthers had to walk single-file, balancing on the narrow mound of mud. Nikka rode behind, watching Saja’s brown back sway back and forth, dark shadow marks forming vine-like patterns that twisted and wound around the contours of her muscles.
A wide mound divided the unplanted paddies from a group of smaller paddies where the dry season’s crop had not yet been harvested. A small bamboo shack stood in a clearing. A water buffalo stood chewing its cud beside the shack.
“Such a humble place to begin a war.” Saja said.
“Humility is for the weak.” Lanaia’s melodic voice crooned from within the shack. “We are strong here.”
The middle-aged woman appeared in the doorway. Her body was still lean and strong. Her long brown hair was beginning to turn gray, but she still wore it in the manner of a warrior. Much of Saja’s ambition and scheming was owed to Lanaia’s influence.
Saja laughed as she slid from Sol’s back. “We are strong indeed, Mother.”
“I’m not your mother, Saja. Call me that again and I’ll teach you a lesson.”
Saja laughed and embraced her former mentor. “You haven’t been able to best me for over a decade, old woman.”
“Hello, Nikka.” Lanaia said fondly, reaching an arm to draw her into the embrace.
“Hello, Lanaia. Do you have the machine ready?”
“Don’t be so hasty, my child. It is when we take the time to breathe that our body grows strong.”
Nikka sighed dramatically. Lanaia was fond of old proverbs. There was wisdom in them, but Nikka had her own wisdom too.
“The Mothers will be here tomorrow for the demonstration.” Nikka grumbled “It would be nice to know the machine works before that.”
Lanaia laughed. “Very well, Little Sister. We will work now and take our pleasure later.”
She guided them over to the water buffalo and showed them the machine harnessed behind it.
“That will cut rice?” Saja asked doubtfully.
“It will.” Lanaia replied. “And gather it as well.”
She stepped forward to show the various parts of the complex machine. “These are the guides that hold the rice stalk. Beneath are the spinning sickles that cut the stalks. This drum pushes the stalk back into the basket. When the basket is full, you tie the stalks and carry them to the drying shed.”
“You say it will be faster than hand-cutting. How much faster?” Saja asked.
“It can do three rows at a time, and goes as fast as the buffalo will walk. More importantly, though, one laborer can do the work of four.” Lanaia answered.
“In the same time?” Saja was surprised.
“Faster.” Lanaia responded with a laugh. “The laborer must step, cut, and load. This cuts and loads as it moves.”
“Can we see it working?”
“Of course.” Lanaia answered.
Lanaia waved a young laborer over and handed her the rope tied to the buffalo’s nose ring. The beast followed obediently as she pulled, guiding it towards a partially cut paddy. They waded into the mud and lined up the machine. As the girl lead the buffalo through the rice, the machine obediently began cutting and stacking the stalks three rows at a time.
“A few stalks get away, and a few get trampled, but the losses are quite small.” Nikka observed.
Saja watched the machine. “I don’t like the buffalo ahead of the machine. We could save those stalks if the buffalo pushed the machine instead of pulling it.”
Lanaia laughed. “We tried that. The fool animal just walked backwards. It wouldn’t push the machine, no matter what we tried.”
“The Mothers will see the waste. Can we do anything else to prevent the stalks from being trampled?” Saja sighed.
Lanaia shrugged. “Most of the stalks still get caught by the machine. The losses are less than hand-cutting. The laborers drop quite a bit as they load and haul the baskets.”
The machine finished the row as they spoke, completing the task far faster than a laborer hand-cutting it could have done.
“The speed is impressive.” Nikka observed. “Three rows in half the time of four laborers. The buffalos can be supplied from the baggage train, and we’d free up laborers for other work. It could cut weeks off the harvest.”
“I’m still concerned about the losses. The mothers won’t approve the machine if it’s wasting rice.” Saja worried. “Can we show the Mothers that we’re getting as much or more than hand-cutting?”
“We have a race.” Nikka suggested. “Two groups cutting by hand, eight laborers per group, against one laborer with the machine. Each team cuts twelve rows, and we weigh the sheaves.”
“That would work.” Lanaia mused. “The machine would finish first and have a heavier pile.”
The laborer returned as they spoke, guiding the buffalo and machine up onto the hard-packed mud. She’d cut another three rows on her way back.
“Impressive enough?” Lania asked.
Saja nodded. “It will work. Let’s get out of the rain and you can tell me about the other machines you’ve dreamed up.”