Sleep never came to Nikka. She spent the night staring out the open window, her mind fixed on the distant spire in the center of the Battle Plain. There was something special about it, something that called to her. She needed to see it.
The horns began to blow as the first pre-dawn light began to appear in the eastern sky. Nym stirred on her cushions and stretched, a guttural feline yawn filling the chamber.
“I’m glad one of us slept.” Nikka rolled out of her hammock and stroked her panther’s head. “You’re going to have to do all the work today anyways.”
Nym purred, bending down to rub her head against Nikka’s side. After a moment, Nym’s body went rigid and alert. It was a few seconds before Nikka’s focused senses picked up the sounds that had triggered her cat’s reaction.
A young laborer girl, not more than ten or eleven, timidly slipped into the room, a tray of food in her hands. Nikka could smell the sweet rice in buffalo milk, the boiled fish, and the ripe fruit on the tray. Her stomach growled.
Nym growled in response. The panther had gorged herself last night, scarfing down nearly a quarter of a buffalo. She wasn’t hungry herself.
The young serving girl clearly didn’t know that. She was new in the compound, her skin still the rich coppery color that came from years of outdoor labor. Her nervousness showed she wasn’t yet accustomed to the massive cats that lived with their riders.
“Wait for me outside, Nym.” Nikka instructed, pointing out at the verdant gardens. Nym purred and padded away silently.
The young laborer girl breathed a sigh of relief as the cat left. With somewhat bolstered courage, she stepped over to the table and set the tray down. Without a word, she spun and disappeared as quickly as she could.
Nikka smiled and sat down to eat. She couldn’t comprehend the girl’s fears about shadow witches and their powers. Nikka had been raised and taught by witches, and had been given the power at the age of eight. For her, it was a normal, natural part of her life. It was only in the rare moments like this one that she remembered that there were those who saw her in shades of fear and intimidation.
Nikka ate her breakfast with atypical enthusiasm. There would be plenty of sweet rice mash over the next months, but fresh fish and fruit would be an impossible luxury high on the Battle Plain.
After eating and preparing herself for the day, Nikka summoned Nym. The panther appeared in the doorway in the same silent, stealthy manner she had left. It made Nikka think about the tactics they’d trained on through the rains. Panthers were naturally solitary, stealthy creatures that ambushed their prey. Those tactics simply weren’t possible on the battle plain where trees were scarce.
Nikka put the thoughts aside for later consideration. She’d have plenty of time to think over the next several days as they rode to the Battle Plain.
She climbed onto Nym’s back and settled into position. “You ready for this, girl?” She asked, scratching Nym behind the ear.
Nym growled softly.
“All right, let’s go.” With a gentle squeeze of her heels against Nym’s sides, she set the battle panther into motion.
The courtyard buzzed with energy and emotion. Young witches, too young to ride to war, bid farewell to their mentors. Nikka had watched Saja ride off to war three times before finally being allowed to join her this year.
The energy of the training ground was more comfortable. Here, sisters milled about on their panthers, waiting. There were a few dozen already present, and more gathering. She recognized Samma and Matta talking and rode to greet them.
She hadn’t spoken with her sisters since their homecoming at the beginning of the rain. Samma had been mournful then, grieving over the loss of her twin sister. Matta had been even worse off, her panther dead and her spirit broken.
Matta had a new mount now, a young panther barely large enough to ride. Her spirit seemed healed, as well. She laughed and boasted with Samma as they waited.
“Hello, sisters.” Nikka said courteously.
Samma turned to look at her, her laughter fading. “Well, I see the Battle Queen’s pet condescends to speak to us.”
Matta looked down at the ground.
“You seem to be well.” Nikka tried again.
“No thanks to you.” Samma spat.
Nikka met Samma’s eyes, looking for the source of her sister’s hostility. Samma glared back for a few seconds, before she looked away uncomfortably.
“You’re not really angry at me.” Nikka said softly after a moment’s silence. “I’m sorry about Damma. I know you miss her.”
Fire burned in Samma’s eyes. “How dare you presume to know what I’m thinking?”
Nikka sighed. “It’s no great presumption, Samma. The grief is written on your face as clearly as it was when the horde first returned. Anyone can see it.”
Samma’s eyes grew hard and cold. “You know nothing, little one.”
“Save your anger for the wolf-riders, sister. I’m not your enemy.” Nikka countered in a soothing tone.
Her response only fed Samma’s anger. Nikka knew what was happening; she’d seen it before in witches who lost loved ones. Her people valued strength and pride. They did not deal well with grief.
Samma formed a blade in her right hand, fierce cold anger giving it a stark, icy edge.
“If you attack me, Samma, you’ll lose the right to ride to battle.” Nikka warned. “You will never get the vengeance your heart desires.”
Samma glared at Nikka. She knew Nikka was right, but that didn’t make it any easier to admit. The blade held for several seconds before the shadow dispersed into nothing.
Nikka nodded calmly, the tension melting from her body. “I pray you find the comfort you seek on the Battle Plain.”
Samma was silent.
With a tap of her heels, Nikka turned Nym away.
Clauda appeared at Nikka’s side. “You never cease to surprise me.”
Nikka looked over at her friend. “How so?”
“She insulted you. How were you not angry at her?”
Nikka shook her head and sighed. “Her spirit is broken; her will to live gone. She doesn’t want a fight, she wants to die.”
“You think so?” Clauda asked, looking back over her shoulder.
“Matta knows it too. She has healed, but Samma’s wound has festered. She burns with self-loathing, hating herself for surviving when Damma died.”
“Is there anything you can do for her?”
Nikka sighed. “I’m afraid she doesn’t want to heal.”
Clauda thought for a moment. “Perhaps Saja will know what to do.”
Nikka laughed sourly. “Saja will give her what she seeks, the opportunity to die. Perhaps that is what she needs.”
Clauda was silent.
“The blood of an enemy has been known to restore vigor to the disheartened warrior.” Nikka added after a few moments. “Perhaps all she needs is to kill a few wolf-riders.”
“Perhaps.” Clauda nodded, hopeful.
There were hundreds of witches milling about on the training ground now. More arrived with each moment. Nikka and Clauda worked their way through the milling crowds of women on panthers, greeting familiar faces as they went.
Saja was waiting at the gates, giant Som growling impatiently.
“This is taking too long.” Saja grumbled.
“It’s going to take eight days to ride to the battle plain.” Nikka laughed “Do a few minutes matter that much?”
“We’re not taking eight days.” Saja replied. “The cats can cover it in two.”
“So we arrive there in two days.” Nikka said critically. “Exhausted. Without supplies or the bulk of the horde. We’re powerful, but we have to eat and we’re vulnerable when we sleep. We’re more than a moon ahead of our normal departure time. There’s no need to rush off rashly.”
Saja glared at Nikka, but took a breath. “We need to get there before the Wolf Riders.”
Nikka shook her head. “They already control the plain. They’re already there, a few of them at least. If they’re smart, they’ll have scouts watching the pass. They’ll know we’re coming before we get there. We already know that. But they won’t be ready to fight. Most of their warriors and laborers will be harvesting. It will take days for them to muster a sufficient army to answer us. By then, we’ll have control of the Battle Plain. Getting there first is essential, but we must be in fighting form, at our full strength when we arrive, or it does us no good.”
Saja shook her head and sighed. “I know you’re right, little sister. It pains me to wait. We’re so close.”
“Only if we stay with the plan. Trust yourself, Saja. It’s your plan.”
Saja laughed. “It’s yours and Lanaia’s. I know that much.”
“But we’re yours. Your sisters, your friends, your counselors. Nobody would follow me to war. You’re the inspiration, the fire that bonds our hearts together.”
“I’ll believe that much.” Saja smiled. “You’re no battle queen. Not yet.”
Nikka smiled and turned to watch the growing army. By her estimate, the ranks of cat-riding sisters had grown to over a thousand. Only a few stragglers remained.
The last stars were fading in the West when Saja signaled for another blast of the horns. It was time to ride out.
The gates of the compound opened and Saja led out, Nikka and Clauda with her other lieutenants close behind. The sisters of the Horde rode south first. They crossed the bridge to the citadel. There, the mothers waited, watching their sisters and daughters ride to war.
Rankala was there, her belly bulging with the new warrior she’d conceived; another fighter for the cause. Witch or witch-born, the infant would be raised with a blade in hand. Saja saluted the mothers as she rode past.
The witch-born were waiting on the far side of the bridge, their brass and steel armor glittering in the pre-dawn light. Thousands of men, three or four times the number of witches. They beat their swords against their shields as the sisters rode past on their cats.
The clamor filled Nikka’s ears and burned in her blood. The thrill, the realization that she was riding to war, filled her with fire. She wanted to cry out.
She wasn’t the only one. The war-cry started with one of the panthers, bellowing her excitement. The other cats and their riders joined in. They yelled long and loud.
The horde was assembling.
Outside the city gates, the mud-packed fields were full of wagons and people. Thousands upon thousands of laborers waited to ride out after the witches and witch-born. There were many skilled laborers; cart-wrights, armorers, cooks, and animal herders. There were also the fighters, armed with simple spears, bows, and staves; thousands of women and men both young and old.
Anyone of use on the Battle Plain would ride out with them. Only the mothers, children, and those too old or sick to fight remained behind.
The sun was full in the sky by the time they passed the last of the waiting laborers. The cats strode a slow, measured pace. The witch-born and the slow baggage would set the pace. Eight days. That’s how long it would take to reach the Battle Plain; eight long, slow days.
Nikka’s blood cooled as they rode along the long, wide road which lead north and east, ever climbing upward.
It was on the third day that they passed from their own lands. Deep in the foothills, they passed by laborers still cutting the rice by hand. News of the ride of Hammakan would reach the other eight cities. The competition was not merely with the wolf-riders, but between the nine cities of the Shadow Realm.
Eight other Battle Queens would know that somehow the Hammakan horde had beat them to the plain. They would all rush to be the next horde to arrive. Eight other cities would become hasty and careless. They’d leave crops in the fields, fruit on the trees. Six months from now, the people left behind would suffer for their haste.
These were all things Nikka had thought through. She and Lanaia had talked for days about the inevitable consequences of their actions. Saja and Rankala had been unconcerned. “Their problems are their own.” Saja had answered.
Laborers stood, stopping their work to watch the horde ride past. The army was strung out over miles, moving at the slow pace of an ox-drawn rice wagon.
Late in the day, a lone witch waited at an intersection in the road ahead of them. Saja signaled the horde to halt.
“Nikka, ride with me.” She ordered.
Nikka nudged Nym to follow Som as they moved ahead of the group.
“Greetings to you.” The witch said, bowing at the waist.
“What do you want?” Saja asked impatiently.
“The Mothers have expressed concern to see a horde riding so early. They fear for the welfare of those left behind.”
Saja laughed. “They have nothing to fear. Our mothers and sisters are well provisioned. We have completed our harvest.”
“How?” The witch’s incredulous expression made Nikka smile.
“With hard work and cunning.” Saja retorted.
Nikka sighed. The competitive spirit between the hordes served a purpose, but it could be taken too far. The secret of the machines couldn’t be kept. A laborer or a spy from one of the other cities would quickly get a glimpse of one of the machines. A few would go missing, and next year all nine cities would have machines. Such was the way of the Shadow Realm.
“Was there something else?” Saja snapped after the witch failed to respond to the ambiguous answer.
The witch merely bowed and sent her panther sprinting away through the rice paddies.
“That was pointless.” Saja grumbled.
“Have you noticed you can’t smell the sea here?” Nikka remarked casually.
Saja eyed her for a moment.
“What?” Saja asked.
“The sea. You can’t smell it. I can hardly see it in the distance.”
“They don’t eat fish.” Nikka explained.
Saja rolled her eyes. “You aren’t making sense, Nikka. What are you trying to say?”
Nikka took a deep breath. “What do they eat instead of fish?”
“Pigs.” Saja replied. “They taste disgusting. They’re filthy, disgusting animals that wallow in their own waste.”
“Oh.” Nikka said softly.
“Why?” Saja queried.
“I don’t know.” Nikka replied. “It just seems so different here. I mean, some things are the same, but others are different.”
Saja laughed. “You think too much, little sister. What does it matter?”
Nikka shrugged. “It doesn’t, I suppose. It just makes me wonder.”
They were silent as they rode back to rejoin the horde. Saja signaled and the horns blew. The horde began to move again.
“What was that about?” Clauda asked.
Nikka shrugged. “They wanted to know how we finished our harvest so quickly.”
“Did you tell them?”
Nikka shook her head. “Share with another horde? Of course not.”
Clauda laughed. “Of course not.”