“The next fighters are coming out.” Rankala called out.
Nikka sat up on the couch where she’d been reclining. “Move over, Saja. Let me see them.”
Saja laughed and shifted aside. “I don’t know why you care. You won’t be old enough to breed for thirteen more years.”
“I can still enjoy the fighting.” Nikka retorted. She also wasn’t too young to enjoy looking at the men as they stretched and flexed their muscles before the fight.
As the highest-ranking of the new Mothers, Rankala was given the best box in the arena. She’d been kind enough to invite Saja and Nikka to watch with her. Nikka wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.
The two fighters entered the pit from opposite sides. Nikka analyzed them as they walked in circles, showing off for the spectators. The taller of the two was clearly strong, his muscles bulging under his coppery-brown skin. The other man had darker skin and more compact, stringy muscles. He also had a gleam of intelligence in his eyes the other didn’t.
“Ten silvers on the shorter one.” Nikka bet.
Rankala looked at her and laughed. “I’ll take that.”
“Double then.” Nikka countered.
Rankala looked from Nikka to Saja. Saja offered a noncommittal shrug.
“Fine. Twenty silvers.”
“Thirty if it’s in the first three minutes.” Nikka countered again. She knew she was pressing her luck.
Rankala just laughed. “Sure, little one. Thirty if it’s in the first three minutes.”
Nikka smiled, and turned to watch the men. The fight started, and the bigger man rushed in, counting on his size to give him the advantage. His smaller opponent read the attack and timed his counter-attack carefully. At the last moment, he ducked to the side and punched his opponent right on the ear. The larger man crashed into the wall and stumbled to his knees.
Nikka sighed and turned to inspect the tray of snacks beside her.
“What?” Saja asked, noting Nikka’s distraction.
“The fight’s over.” Nikka shrugged.
Rankala shook her head. “One weak punch and you think he’s done?”
Nikka nodded. “It’s not the force of the punch; it’s where he punched him.”
“For a girl who has never been to war…” Rankala’s voice had an edge to it.
“Watch.” Nikka interrupted, resolutely pointing to the arena.
Rankala’s eyes burned, but Nikka didn’t back down. The older woman fumed a moment longer, but finally turned to watch.
The taller fighter had a cut on his forehead from crashing into the wall, but he was also stumbling around the arena, struggling to stay on his feet.
“What happened?” Saja asked, confused.
Nikka growled. “You look, but you don’t see. Men don’t fight with shadow blades and armor from the back of panthers. They train one-on-one, unarmed; just like they fight in the tournaments.”
“So?” Rankala asked.
Rankala’s fighter steadied himself and rushed in for another attack. The conversation paused so they could watch. Once again, the smaller fighter sidestepped, catching a fist on his shoulder as he twisted away, but landing his own punch on his opponent’s other ear.
The larger man never even made it to the wall. He stumbled and collapsed, his hands clasped to his head.
“He won’t get up. He can’t.” Nikka declared. “He has no balance left. He’ll roll around on the floor until they come in to drag him out.”
Rankala pouted for a moment, watching Nikka’s prediction come true. “Why?”
“Balance.” Nikka replied. “Our ability to stand is based on our sense of balance. Our center of balance is in the ear.”
“How do you know that?” Saja asked.
“From watching the men fight.” Nikka responded. “They know it, at least some of them. The ones who attack the ears will usually win because their opponent can’t stay on his feet.”
The fallen opponent was dragged from the arena, and the victor faced the box and bowed. Nikka smiled and blew him a kiss.
“Thirty silvers.” She reminded Rankala.
Rankala grumbled, but handed over the small silver chits. “How do you know so much about how the men train?”
Nikka blushed and looked down at the ground. “I like to watch them. There’s a spot on the ramparts of the south wall where you can see into the training grounds.”
Saja snorted with laughter and tousled Nikka’s hair. “Leave it to you, Little Sister.”
Rankala was more sober. “What else have you learned from watching the men fight?”
Saja stopped laughing and eyed Nikka critically.
Nikka looked up meekly. “Their fighting techniques are different from ours because their equipment is different. We always have our shadow. They practice fighting without weapons or armor, not just because that’s how they fight in the tournaments, but because their weapons and armor can be lost or damaged in war.”
“What else?” Saja prompted.
Nikka thought carefully. “Our techniques are more like the larger fighter, depending on the size and speed of our cats and the power of our shadow blades. Many of the men train like the smaller fighter. Precise, intelligent attacks that focus on the weaknesses of their opponents.”
“How does that help us?” Saja probed.
“I don’t know.” Nikka replied. “I haven’t had a chance to study the wolf-riders or how they use their light-magic. It’s got to have weaknesses, though. Shadows disperse when we lose consciousness, so an unconscious witch is a dead witch. What vulnerabilities do wolf-riders have?”
Rankala and Saja looked at one another in awkward silence.
“I don’t know.” Saja finally admitted. “I’ve never really thought about it. We kill them however we can.”
“Think about the last time you took down a wolf-rider. Where did you cut him? Where did your blade penetrate?” Nikka prompted.
“Their neck is weak.” Rankala said finally. “Decapitation is the easiest way to finish them.”
“Their backs are weaker too.” Saja added after a few more seconds. “They don’t wear metal on the backs of their legs or arms, or the hind-legs of their wolves. They always try to attack front-on, but they’re vulnerable if you can get behind them.”
Two new fighters entered the arena, derailing the conversation. These two were both brutes of similar size. Both Rankala and Saja looked to Nikka.
“They’re both clearly strength-fighters.” Nikka said. “The brown-haired one looks stronger, but notice how the black-haired one stands. It’s a stronger stance; more stable. I’d bet on him, but by a small margin. This will be a long fight as they bludgeon one another into submission.”
It was a long fight, full of wrestling, arm-pushing and grunting.
“There is something else I thought of.” Nikka said after the first few minutes of watching. “Not from watching the men, but from watching the harvesting machine Lanaia built.”
Saja and Rankala both turned to listen.
“We always fight alone, a single witch and her cat, operating as an independent unit. I’ve trained to target a wolf-rider and attack him on my own.”
“Yes. It works well.” Rankala said.
“It did work well; when we had the advantage in single combat.” Nikka corrected. “Now that they have wolves as large as our cats, we’ve lost that advantage.”
“What are you suggesting?” Saja asked as she leaned forward.
“Working in small groups; teams.” Nikka said. “Three or four cats together, maybe more, training together to work as a single unit.”
“How did you get that from the harvesting machine?” Saja asked.
“The scythe on the bottom spins to cut three rows at once.” Nikka said.
“I don’t follow.” Rankala said, annoyed.
Nikka shrugged in frustration. “Forget the harvesting machine. Think about it. Even though they have three or four wolves for each rider, we’ve always had the advantage because our cats were larger. A single cat could take on two or three wolves alone. We had smaller numbers, but a superior force.”
“So you’re saying we counter the size of their wolves by teaming up.” Saja said.
“That’s right.” Nikka was getting excited. “Three witches riding side-by-side could protect one another. The two on the outside only have to worry about attacks from the sides. The one in the middle can take anything in front. If they practice turning and fighting together, they can protect one another.”
Rankala laughed. “It’s a good idea, Nikka, but you’ll have a hard time convincing the sisters to work together. There’s a lot of pride to contend with.”
The fight was drawing to a close, the two men stumbling more from exhaustion than any particular injury. The three women watched as the brown-haired one telescoped a punch and left himself open for a brutal series of rib-punches from the black-haired one. The brown-haired fighter tumbled to the ground, overwhelmed by the pain.
“I can think of a few sisters we could invite to watch the fights with us. A few rounds of hearing Nikka predict the winner before the fight would be enough to convince them to listen to her.” Saja said, standing. “She’s convinced me.”
Nikka sat astride Nym, Saja on Som beside her. On Saja’s other side was Clauda, a young witch a few years older than Nikka. Rankala had identified her as one who might be open to unusual ideas.
“I think the hardest part will be getting the panthers to stay close and move together.” Nikka explained. “It’s not in their nature, so they’re going to resist it at first.”
“How do we know when to go, or how fast, or when to turn, or to stop?” Clauda asked.
“Stay with the center. Follow my lead.” Saja replied cooly.
“It’s going to take a lot of practice. Let’s start by trying to start at the same time. Keep an eye on Saja so you can respond when she does.” Nikka coached, trying to keep a warmer tone in her voice.
“Are you ready?” Saja asked.
“Yes.” Nikka replied.
“I guess.” Clauda wavered.
Saja set Som in motion with a touch of her heels. Nikka followed, falling in a step behind. Clauda took a moment longer to fall into step.
“That didn’t work.” Saja grumbled, pulling Som to a halt.
“It was our first try.” Nikka laughed. “Did you really expect it to work right away?”
Saja sighed and Clauda smiled weakly. Nikka had to find a way to make this work quickly or Saja would grow impatient and give up.
“Maybe you could say something when you start.” Clauda whispered.
“That’s a good idea.” Nikka affirmed. “I’m more used to riding with you, Saja, so I can sense your intentions better. Verbal commands would make it easier for others to know what to do.”
Saja rolled her eyes. “Fine. Ready?”
“Yes.” Nikka and Clauda replied.
It worked better, but Nikka and Clauda were both a step behind.
“One more time.” Nikka coached. “This time, pause for half a breath after you say ‘go’.”
Saja nodded. “Ready?”
On their third try, they all moved at the same time, keeping their panthers shoulder-to-shoulder. They rode together, keeping the line together until Saja signaled a stop.
Saja’s expression lightened. “It worked.”
“Of course it did.” Nikka grinned.
Clauda was grinning too. “Could you imagine an entire line of us, riding in a perfect line like that? The wolf-riders wouldn’t know what to do!”
Saja and Nikka both looked at Clauda.
Saja laughed. “Hundreds of witches riding shoulder to shoulder, huh? They wouldn’t know what to do with that.”
Nikka thought for a moment. “If they were smart, they’d try to break us up, cut up the line into individuals again where they’d have a better chance. We’ll have to practice hard to keep from getting split up. The cats will have to learn an entirely new way of working together.”
“But we’d devastate them.” Saja crowed. “It’s worth it!”
Nikka thought about it for a second longer. “It’d be easier in a defensive posture. We could hold a ford easily enough using this technique. In an attack, holding a line will be hard. We’ll have to learn how to stay together while moving, fighting, and turning.”
“We can do it.” Clauda was getting infected by Saja’s enthusiasm.
“We only have a few months.” Nikka warned. “There’s a lot of work to do.”
Nikka looked over her line of fifty Sisters, their cats standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Nikka rode in the command position at the center of the line. She knew she should have felt uncomfortable commanding so many experienced warriors, but she shrugged the thought away.
“Ready!” She called as loud as she could. The command was repeated by her lieutenants halfway between her and each end of the line.
“Ride!” Nikka called. She waited for the command to be repeated, then urged Nym into motion.
The line moved, the cats moving in step with one another. They started slow, but Nikka began to speed them up, pushing them to keep the line straight as they panthers began to jog.
“Left!” Nikka shouted.
Holding the line in a turn was tricky. The sisters on the inside of the turn had to stop while the sisters on the outside had to move twice as fast as the middle. To their credit, her riders maintained a nearly perfect line.
“Front!” Nikka called out partway through the turn.
The witches responded, changing their movement to jog forward together.
She gave them a few paces before turning them again. She zigged and zagged her line across the field, watching to make sure they held the line at each step.
“Armor!” She called.
This was the real challenge. Nikka focused on keeping Nym in stride as she willed her shadow armor to form. Smoke-like tendrils spread from her shadow-marks, weaving together like mist to form a second skin over her body. It began to thicken, less in the places where she needed flexibility, more where it could be rigid. She could see out through the shadow that covered her face, even breathe through it, but it would stop a light-infused blade. She extended her armor over Nym, covering the cat in the same insubstantial shadow.
Up and down the line, the witches kept together, holding the jogging pace while forming their armor. Nikka smiled with pride. It had taken three months of hard work to get this far, but her squad was starting to get pretty good.
“Blades!” Nikka called out, the shadow jaws of her armor moving with her own. She extended an eight-foot blade from her right hand, pointing it forward.
Her fifty witches looked a truly frightening specter trotting in a line, their blades extended like the deadly spines of a lionfish. Nikka grinned to herself.
“Charge!” She ordered, counting down from three to give the others a chance to hear and prepare.
The line burst into a run, fifty armored witches on their fearsome battle-panthers eating up the training ground in a perfect line. They struck the line of bamboo targets in unison, cutting each target down. With no mass, the shadow-blades passed through the bamboo without resistance, allowing the witches to maintain the line even as they struck their opponents.
Cats leapt over fallen targets, but held the line. Nikka wheeled her line right, cutting through another row of targets. They kept moving at full-speed, cutting through row after row, turning from time to time to meet their new targets.
“Halt!” Nikka cried out finally.
The cats slowed to a stop, still maintaining their formation.
Saja jumped down from the observation tower where she’d watched Nikka drill her line.
“Magnificent!” She called, a massive grin on her face. “The wolf-riders won’t be prepared for this.”
“How are the other lines coming?” Nikka asked.
Saja shrugged. “None are as good as yours, my dear sister.”
Nikka flushed with pride and excitement. “You gave me the best.”
Saja shook her head. “No. You made them the best. There is something… exceptional about you. Dismiss your riders. We have more to talk about.”
“Release Blades and Armor.” Nikka called, releasing her own. She watched as they dissolved into nothing. She’d been given the shadow power nine years ago, but she still marveled at it.
“Good work, Sisters.” Nikka called out. “You’ve proven your abilities, your devotion to the cause. We will ride together and reclaim our heritage!”
The women shouted their approval.
“Release the line!” She called out, dismissing her soldiers to practice individually. Several would form small groups to practice formation riding, while others would practice tilting at targets with their eight-foot blades. Despite initial hesitation, the witches of her squad had embraced the new tactics and were working hard to master them. They really were the best of the army, whatever Saja claimed.