Nikka rode alone among the rice paddies. The stalks were tall and green now, waving back and forth gently in the breeze. It hadn’t rained yet today, nor did it appear that it would. The rains were coming to an end. The harvest would start soon, and then war.
Nikka patted Nym on the neck and sighed. “Let’s enjoy the quiet while we can, my friend. We’ll see battle soon enough.”
The massive battle panther growled in reply. She was growing restless as the rains drew to a close. It was as if she knew that this year they would finally ride to war. Soon, Nym would be a true battle panther.
The rice paddies ended abruptly, opening on the hard-packed mud that had been Lanaia’s test paddies. Instead of rice, they grew machines; hundreds of machines. On one side were the small rice-cutting machines Nikka recognized. On the other were similar machines three-times the size. Lanaia was among a group of laborers at the far end of the clearing.
“Hello, my dear.” Lanaia said warmly, standing to greet Nikka.
Nikka slid off Nym’s back and embraced her. “Hello Lanaia. Saja sends her fondest greetings.”
“She is, no doubt, quite busy these days.” Lanaia sighed. “The cost of authority.”
Nikka laughed. “You sound jealous.”
Lanaia sighed. “A part of me is. At this time of year, most of the Mothers recall the excitement of riding to war with fondness and no small yearning.”
“You would go back?” Nikka queried.
“Yes, and no. I have two daughters to think of, and my duty to the city. And yet…”
“The men never retire from war. They do not stop to bear daughters or care for the city. I envy the simplicity of their world.”
Nikka considered the elder woman’s words carefully. “Some would call those words heresy.”
Lanaia smiled. “They are heresy, my child. Does that bother you?”
“No.” Nikka shrugged. “I expect it from you.”
Lanaia’s face took on a sober expression. “There is wisdom in the laws of the Shadow Queen. We benefit from her wisdom. But there is also wisdom in asking questions, in seeking understanding of her wisdom. To silence questions with words like ‘heresy’ only encourages ignorance and blind obedience.”
Nikka nodded silently.
Lanaia watched her for a moment “You have other questions?”
Nikka laughed. “I have many, many questions.”
“And is it heresy to ask them?”
Lanaia waved towards her shack. “Let us go inside. We can talk freely there.”
“The machines are working wonders.” Nikka said from her perch on the branch of a plum tree. “The rice and sugarcane will be in by the new moon.”
Saja stood on a ladder leaned against another of the tree’s branches. Not even the Battle Queen escaped the labor of the harvest. “Good. We need more laborers here.”
Nikka laughed, taking a bite of the plum she’d just picked. The purple juice dripped down her chin. “We’ve got five hundred sisters in this orchard. How many do we need?”
“We’re built for battle, not picking fruit.” Saja protested, dropping two more plums into the basket on her hip.
“We’re built the same as the laborers.” Nikka retorted. “We’re just trained differently.”
Saja eyed Nikka critically. “You believe that?”
Nikka shrugged. “We all have arms and legs, hands and feet.”
“Have you seen the laborers when they’re not working? They lay around, gossiping and mating. Is that what you do?”
Nikka laughed “I would if you’d let me.”
Saja’s expression turned dangerous.
“I’m teasing.” Nikka sighed. “You’re no fun today.”
“My heart longs for the Battle Plain.” Saja said, turning to look to the mountains. “I yearn for battle, for blood. I yearn for victory.”
“Have you ever been to the Spire?” Nikka redirected the conversation.
Saja’s face took a distant expression. “I’ve seen it from a distance. The cursed wolf-riders took it from us years before I ever rode to battle.”
“Lanaia told me about it.” Nikka mused. “She said the Shadow Queen gave our ancestors the power of shadows there.”
“That is why we must reclaim it from the wolf-riders.” Saja fumed. “We cannot allow them to continue to defile our sacred heritage.”
“Why does she allow it? The Shadow Queen, I mean. She has so much power, couldn’t she just destroy the wolf-riders?”
Saja eyed Nikka warily “That sounds dangerously like heresy, Little Sister.”
Nikka shrugged. “It’s only heresy if I deny her power. I simply seek to understand her motives.”
Saja sighed. “I shouldn’t have allowed you to spend so much time with Lanaia. She’s been filling your head with her damn fool ideas.”
“Lanaia’s not to blame, Saja. She doesn’t believe the Shadow Queen even lives. She said she’d probably died and rotted in her tower centuries ago.”
“The Shadow Queen is immortal. She can’t die.”
“So instead, she sits in her spire and lets us suffer the humiliation of seeing our heritage stolen and defiled.” Nikka said.
Saja shook her head. “These thoughts lead only to heresy, Nikka. Put them out of your mind.”
Nikka sighed. “Perhaps your right, Saja.”
Clauda was overseeing the loading of provisions onto the wagons. While a Shadow Witch could form many things with her shadow power, food was not one of them.
“Hello Clauda.” Nikka said as she rode up on Nym.
“Nikka.” Clauda nodded. “We are almost ready. The last wagons will be loaded by nightfall.”
“Saja will be pleased to hear that.”
Clauda laughed. “We’re all eager to ride to battle. Saja’s battle-lust infects the whole horde.”
“She seeks to reclaim our heritage. That is the idea that infects us so deeply.” Nikka said softly.
“So it is.” Clauda smiled.
“The horde will ride out at first light.” Nikka informed her.
“We’ll surely beat the wolf-riders onto the plain this year.” Clauda laughed. “They’re probably still cutting their wheat.”
Nikka had been about to ride off, but she paused. “What is wheat?”
Clauda shrugged. “It’s a grain, like rice, but it grows in the colder, drier highlands where the wolf-riders live.”
Nikka’s curiosity was piqued. “Have you eaten it?”
“We’ve captured supplies from them before. I’ve never eaten the whole grains, but bread made from the flour.”
“Fascinating. I’d love to try it.”
Clauda laughed. “It’s not as good as rice bread. It has a strange, sour taste to it. They have other grains as well. I don’t recall the names, but they are used to make different tasting bread.”
“The wolf-riders are very different from us.” Nikka mused.
“Even their skin is different. It’s pale and pasty-looking; ugly. And their hair is lighter too. Everything about them is strange and ugly.”
Nikka laughed. “Perhaps it’s their light-magic that makes them so pale.”
Clauda shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. It does help us know who to kill. That is all I care to know.”
Nikka smiled. “Of course.”