The road grew steep as it approached the pass into the Battle Plain. Nikka lost count of how many times they switched back, zig-zagging their way slowly up the steep mountainside. The air was cooler and dry, at least compared to what Nikka was accustomed to.
Looking back, Nikka couldn’t even see her city in the distance. The lowlands were just a green smear between the foothills and the sea. Even the mighty Red River was swallowed up in the distance.
“Are you ready for your first glimpse of the Battle Plain, Little Sister?” Saja asked.
“Definitely” Nikka answered, turning to face ahead.
The pass was not natural. Impossibly high, sheer walls rose on either side. The road was just wide enough for four cats to walk shoulder-to-shoulder.
“How…” Nikka started to form a question.
“The Shadow Queen.” Saja interrupted. “The power you and I wield is nothing compared to hers. We are mere mortals, granted what power our weak bodies can handle. She’s a goddess. In the face of such power, who are we to question her purpose and wisdom?”
Nikka bit her tongue. She was still young, but she’d already learned that power and wisdom are not inherently connected. Saja herself was an illustration of that.
“What are those birds?” Nikka asked, pointing overhead.
Hundreds of small, agile birds flickered overhead in a chaotic flurry.
“Annoying.” Saja answered, not even bothering to look up.
“What do you mean?” Nikka asked. “I think they’re beautiful.”
Saja shook her head. “They’re too small to eat, too dumb to train. They’re useless.”
Nikka laughed. “Useless? They’re decimating the swarm of flies that’s been pestering us for days. Besides, they’re gorgeous.”
“If you say so.” Saja replied with a dismissive wave.
Nikka sighed. As much as she loved her elder sister, Saja cared about very different things than Nikka. They were practically different species. Moments like this made Nikka wonder why Saja had chosen to become her mentor.
Her moment of brooding was interrupted by the exit from the high-walled pass.
“Behold, the Battle Plain.” Saja indicated.
“Shadows.” Nikka muttered.
The exit from the pass provided an incredible view of the plain. It was massive, at least a day’s ride across, with steep cliff-walls forming an enclosing ring around it. At the very center was a lake, and at the center of that, a small dark mound rose; the Sentinel Spire.
“The Spire.” Saja said, knowing. “We’re taught about it from our youngest days. Tales of the Shadow Queen’s gift to our first Mothers. Stories of the times our horde sheltered within against the wolf-riders. The countless times we’ve lost it, and regained it.”
“You sound downright nostalgic, Saja.” Nikka sighed.
“We will reclaim it this year.” Saja answered sternly.
“I don’t doubt it.”
Saja signaled the horde and they began to descend into the plain.
“I never saw any indication of any scouts watching the pass.” Nikka said thoughtfully.
“The pretty birds you were admiring are sufficient to warn them of our approach. They can probably see them from the spire. No need to get any closer.” Saja answered.
Nikka looked up, to the flashing red and gold of the birds overhead. Saja’s claim that they’d be visible from the spire was probably an exaggeration, but hundreds of bright-colored birds would be visible for quite a distance. The wolf-riders would know they had arrived.
They rode down slowly, giving the heavy wagons plenty of time to navigate the steep switch-backs. It wasn’t as long a path as the ascent, but it was steeper.
Saja stopped the horde high on the rocks above the valley floor.
“Set the fires.” Saja ordered sternly.
The message was relayed, and they waited. It took several minutes for the first of the Witch-born men to work their way down, massive barrels on their shoulders.
Nikka admired the strength of the Witch-born. They had no shadows, no gift to rely upon. Their strength came through discipline, training, and hard work. She’d watched these men train, and had tried to model her own discipline on the same principles.
The men heaved their barrels onto the neatly planted rows of grain, many splitting open as they crashed down. Rice oil and alcohol spilled out from the shattered barrels and splashed into the dry brown soil. The men pulled out axes and broke up the intact barrels.
Their task finished, the men filed past again, returning to their place behind the sisters. Nikka waited patiently. Beside her, Saja was anxious and impatient.
The flaming arrow arced down from above, fired by one of the Witch-born. It streaked down and pierced the hard wood of a broken barrel. It took only a second for the oil and alcohol to ignite. In a heartbeat, the fire spread, exploding out to consume the fuel-soaked plants.
The wall of flame rose high, and heavy black smoke curled skyward. If the birds had somehow failed to warn the wolf-riders of their arrival, this would certainly do the job.
From their vantage point well above the roaring fire, they watched. The flame spread quickly through the drying grain stalks.
Nikka watched, mesmerized by the flames. The fire was both beautiful and frightening. It ran through the field, spreading faster than she ever imagined. Faster far than a human could run, faster even than a sprinting panther.
As the flames spread, racing across the fields of grain, Nikka felt unexpected regret. These were the crops of her enemy, but it wasn’t the wolf-riders who would suffer. It was the laborers, the simple peasant farmers, who would go without.
It would take hundreds, possibly thousands of laborers to care for the fields. They might even be gathered somewhere, cutting grain. Would they smell the smoke, or see the plume as it rose into the sky? Would they find shelter – perhaps in the lake at the center of the valley – or would they burn to death?
The survivors would lose homes, family, and their food. They would survive the fire only to suffer a slower, more terrible death as they starved. Perhaps they’d be spared the agony and be killed as the horde rode through.
The grain burned quickly, completely consumed by the flames. Only black soil and a few smoldering pieces of broken barrels remained where the fire had started. Saja signaled the horde forward. They followed in the wake of the flames, the wind at their back.
The sun sank over Nikka’s left shoulder as she rode through the burned-out fields. The high sheer cliffs would bring an early dusk and a late dawn in the Battle Plain. The lingering smoke painted the sky orange and red as the sun dipped below the peaks.
A deep purple sky twinkled with stars as they made camp. Tomorrow, they would arrive at the Spire.
Nikka woke before the first morning light crept into the smoke-filled sky. She wiped the sweat from her face, recalling the dreams of fire and death that had filled her mind as she slept. She slipped from her cot and walked out into the camp, Nym padding silently behind.
There was something haunting about the inky clouds of smoke that masked the stars. In the distance, a red glow showed where the crops still smoldered. Nikka had planned and schemed with Saja and the others, working out every step of this plan. Somehow, in the cold morning, the reality seemed so very different. It was no longer a sterile, theoretical plan. It was reality, and it was dark and cold and violent.
Nym touched her nose to Nikka’s shoulder, sensing her rider’s discomfort.
“Did you know it would be like this?” Nikka asked her panther, stroking the great beast’s nose. “Did you understand how much destruction we were planning?”
Nym purred, a deep guttural sound that seemed to resonate within Nikka’s heart.
“I’m glad I have you here.” Nikka sighed, rubbing Nym’s black fur gently.
They walked again in silence, moving through the shadows. Nikka walked out beyond the perimeter of the camp, the black ashes of burned crops clinging to her bare feet.
As light began to creep into the eastern sky, the camp came to life. The smell of cooking meat wafted to Nikka’s nose, reminding her that she was hungry.
“Go eat.” Nikka waved to Nym. “I’ll see you back at our tent.”
Nym growled in reply and bounded off towards the corrals of buffalo kept to feed the panthers. The big cats only ate once every couple of days, but they could consume a quarter of an animal in a single meal.
Nikka’s own breakfast was more modest, consisting mostly of boiled rice with dried fruit. It was accompanied by a small piece of dried fish.
As she ate, Nikka mused on the fact that all life depends on the cycle of life and death. Only the Shadow Queen was immortal, her power transcending the limits of the world.
Clauda appeared on the bench beside her. “Good morning, Sister.”
Nikka nodded politely.
“You look preoccupied.” Clauda probed. “Does something worry you?”
Nikka laughed. “No; nothing serious. I was just wondering if the Shadow Queen ate.”
Clauda laughed. “Why would you think about that?”
Nikka shook her head. “I don’t know. I was just thinking about things. About how the Shadow Queen is immortal, beyond the simple cares of life and death.”
“I’ve been warned about you.” Clauda smiled. “About the strange things you think about. The odd questions you ask.”
“Saja says I waste my time with such thoughts.”
“Saja is a very practical woman.” Clauda answered tactfully.
Nikka laughed. “Practical, zealous, driven. Yes, she’s all those things. But sometimes I wonder if she understands what she’s really doing.”
“Was that not the same concern the Mothers expressed at her naming? She needs a mind like yours to keep her focused on the greater goals.”
“What are the greater goals?” Nikka asked, eyeing Clauda.
“We must reclaim our heritage. The Spire is the birthplace of our people, the origin of our power. The Wolf-riders took it from us.”
“Why would they want it?” Nikka asked. “What value does it have for them?”
“They clearly value the crops they can grow here. Perhaps it’s nothing more than that.” Clauda offered.
“No.” Nikka retorted. “If they really valued the crops, they’d have protected them better. We haven’t met a shred of resistance.”
“They’re busy harvesting.” Clauda suggested.
“But they’re not harvesting here. These crops aren’t the most important, the staples of their survival. Could you imagine us letting the Wolf-riders come burn our rice?”
Clauda shrugged. “So what are they after?”
Nikka sighed. “I don’t know. Nobody seems to know. We’ve fought the Wolf-riders for centuries, but we know nothing about them.”
“They took the Spire from us. We must reclaim it. What else do we need to know?”
Nikka shook her head. “If we understood their motivation, maybe we could stop this war. Maybe we don’t have to fight them.”
Clauda shrugged. “It seems a bit late for such thoughts.”
“Yes.” Nikka sighed. “Far too late.”
Nikka finished her meal and headed back to her tent. It was too late to stop. Saja would never consider a peaceful solution. She wanted the glory, the victory. A peace treaty was unacceptable.
The horde rode slowly, spread out across the Battle Plain. Although attack was unlikely, they rode in formation, prepared for battle. The arrangement made Nikka uncomfortable.
She had always envisioned riding at the front of the battle lines, just as they rode to and from the city. Such was not the arrangement on the battlefield. Indigent and penal laborers formed the front ranks, dressed in rags and armed with crude spears. They were sentenced to almost certain death.
Behind them, a better-off class of laborers marched. Daughters and sons of merchants and craftsmen, they were well equipped to fight. They might even survive; so long as they escaped the Wolf-riders, they stood a chance.
The Witch-born formed the final barrier in front of the Sisters. Bred and trained, they fought for the right to breed. Many would die, but many more would return.
Saja called all three groups the “expendable force”. Their lives were measured by their ability to contribute to her goals. They would absorb the impact if any wolf-riders attacked the line. Then the Sisters would clean up.
Low-hanging smoke from the still-burning fires mixed with the ash-filled dust to create a haze that obscured the view. Somewhere ahead was their destination.
A cry sounded from the front. Not alarm; relief. They’d reached the lake shores. Saja shouted orders. They would circle round to the far side before making camp.
“Lead your group North.” Saja ordered Nikka. “The first ford is at the lake. The second is upriver. We’ll meet you after your second crossing.”
Nikka nodded and called to her lieutenants. The orders were relayed, and about a third of the horde split off under Nikka’s command.
The first ford was a broad, shallow river that drained from the north rim of the Battle Plain. By the time Nikka crossed, the water was brown with the stirred-up mud of over a thousand pairs of feet.
Nym stepped out onto trampled but unburnt blades of whatever grain it was the Wolf-riders grew here. It was too dry for rice, but perhaps it was that wheat Clauda had spoken of. There wasn’t a speck of usable ground not planted. The wind was blowing in her face here, which meant the smoke hadn’t accumulated as thickly.
Nikka gazed across the lake to the island where the Spire rose up. It wasn’t as majestic as she’d imagined. The black stones were rough-cut and bonded with lime. They formed a squat parapet that encompassed most of the island, obscuring any view of the central keep.
There were figures standing on the battlement; about a half-dozen individuals peering through the openings. They were safe, well beyond arrow’s range, so they made no pretense of hiding. Instead, they watched, occasionally making a gesture or a remark to one another.
“Ignore them.” Nikka ordered. “March on.”
There was no sign of any openings in the stone wall that she could see. The drawings she’d been given indicated only one known opening in the wall, a shallow bay on the north-east where barges could pass through the defenses. Still, she kept an eye open. The Wolf-riders had controlled the Spire for years, and may have made changes.
Nikka’s force moved on, following the lake-shore. Three rivers flowed into the lake, but none flowed out. According to Lanaia, the water seeped through the ground and flowed out in thousands of small springs that joined together to form the mighty Red River.
Their movements were watched from the walls. Pale faces appeared or vanished between the crenellations. Nikka wondered how many Wolf-riders waited for their chance to ride out and fight.
The banks began to rise steeply, the lake’s shoreline turning quickly to steep cliffs. They had to move away from the water’s edge. Nikka was uncomfortable turning her back on the black walls of the Spire. She glanced over her shoulder, watching the figures watching her.
The second ford was a narrow step between two cliffs. The water cascaded into a pool on the step, and they marched through hip-deep water to cross. On the far side, the land opened up to a large plain.
“Halt here.” Nikka ordered. “Prepare to make camp. The remainder of the horde will arrive shortly.”
Nikka looked back towards the spire. They were further away here, but they were high enough to get a glimpse over the walls. The spire keep rose from the exact center of the island, the highest point. They had a good view of the massive wood doors that blocked access to the inner bay, as well as the docks on the north-east shore of the lake.
“The entire spire is crawling with laborers.” Saja said with disdain as she arrived in camp. “Hundreds of them. We didn’t remark a single wolf-rider among them.”
“Not one?” Nikka asked, surprised.
Clauda shrugged. “They appeared to be taking in refugees from the burnt fields. We killed about a hundred huddled on the docks waiting to board boats.”
Nikka’s stomach churned. In her mind, she felt no qualms about killing the wolf-riders. She didn’t feel the same way about defenseless laborers, although she knew Saja and the others didn’t make the same distinctions.
“We were watched at the lower ford.” Nikka reported. “But I couldn’t tell if they were laborers or Wolf-riders.”
“Filthy animals.” Saja grumbled. “It’s bad enough that there are men in the spire. But laborers?”
Nikka laughed. “You think laborers are worse than the Wolf-riders?”
Saja spat. “Laborers are mindless animals. They’re no better than hogs or water buffalo. At least the wolf-riders have minds.”
Nikka shrugged. “The wolf-riders are our enemy. Do they not defile the place simply by excluding us?”
“I’m not interested in another of your philosophical discussions, Nikka.” Saja glared.
“I’m your second, Sister. It’s my duty to act as a voice of caution. You’re seeking to justify abandoning our plans. You’re looking for an excuse to assault the spire.”
Saja huffed, then laughed. “You know me too well, Little sister. So? Why not take the spire? If there are no wolf-riders, what is to stop us?”
“A lake, stone walls, and hundreds of laborers, to start with.” Nikka retorted. “But more importantly, taking the spire isn’t enough. We must win the entire battle plain. If we don’t drive them back to the pass – or better yet, keep their force from coming through – we can’t hope to hold the spire.”
Saja took a deep breath. “You’re right. Curse it all, you’re right. Sometimes I hate you for that.”
“But mostly you love me for it.” Nikka laughed.
“I’ve had a report from the scouts left to watch the docks.” Clauda interrupted.
“And?” Saja and Nikka asked together.
“They spotted a wolf-rider among those who came from the spire.” Clauda answered. “There was no mistaking the steel spikes in his ears. They said he was young, but appeared confident and in command.”
“Is he still there?” Nikka asked, her curiosity piqued.
“He was. They were performing funerary rites.”
“I want to see him.” Nikka insisted.
Saja laughed. “Ever the scholar. Analyze him and measure him for us. Go.”
He was still there when she finally slipped up to the crest of the hill where the scouts watched. He was young; probably not much older than Nikka herself. Sandy-colored hair hung in a long braid.
He appeared to be sad, mournful, but not frightened. There were armed men watching, keeping their eyes facing outward, while others gathered the bodies of the dead.
Nikka watched as an older man approached the young wolf-rider. The man pointed at the hill where Nikka and the others crouched. The wolf-rider looked, cocking his head to the side. He casually offered a wave in their direction.
He turned, then, and held his hands out over the nearest of the bodies. They were all lined up, face-up, side-by-side. Blue light raced along the wolf-rider’s body. It followed a course that was eerily familiar. Nikka’s own shadow lines twisted around her limbs and torso in much the same fashion.
Light arced from his hand, rushing to the ground and igniting the bodies of the dead. Black smoke rose from their corpses.
The wolf-rider turned again, looking at where he must know they were crouched against the hillside. The blue light still pulsated across him. Without warning, the light leapt from his fingers again, arcing through the air. The dirt in front of them exploded.
Nikka turned to Clauda. “Did you know they could do that?”
Clauda’s blood had drained from her face.
“No, then?” Nikka asked. “Perhaps it’s time for us to leave.”