The Kingdom of Woodlands is at the end of a 10-year war, which resulted in the formation of a new social class called the heroes. People are vying for power in the new regime.
This chapter delves into the backstory of Golzar, the leader of a hero company. She remembers her past with her mother, a blacksmith, as she duels a hero who was demanding that an old man fight him over a perceived insult. Later, she and Bryn, her second-in-command continue on to their original destination, the palace, where Golzar intends to meet with the Queen over a political move. Bryn, who thinks Golzar is hiding things from them because she doesn't trust them, attempts to do some extra spy work to prove their trustworthiness and commitment to this mission.
WARNING: This chapter depicts death and violence,(including child death) in the context of a village being raided by brutal bandits.
She’d grown up with swords hanging from the walls. The small smithy her mother ran was between the town inn and the stables. It filled with either the smell of smoke or of animal manure on the daily. But it was home. And home meant work.
“A blacksmith,” her mother said, slamming down the hammer onto the streak of red. “Makes swords. A sword master uses swords.”
Loud fizzing filled the room as she doused the hot metal in water. “All that is incorrect. If you really want to do things right, Golzar, you must see everything you make to the end.”
Golzar took the offered hilt.
She liked watching her mother make two-handed swords. They were larger, and popular only with the mercenaries that menaced the villages. But they were beautiful. Sturdy. She felt the grip and weight of the sword in her hand, knowing that her mother would still only let her swing the wooden practice swords about.
“Won’t it make me worse at smithing?” Golzar asked lightly. Her gaze was still transfixed upon the gleaming blade. “The ancients say every person was meant to perfect one craft.”
Her mother laughed. It was a harsh, raspy sound. “The only thing that will make you worse at smithing is laziness.”
She extended her hand, wrinkled with rivulets and paved with callouses. “Now hand that to me, and I’ll show you how to hammer the blade.”
The two-handed sword weighed like a promise.
“Heh. Golzar the Vanguard Racer, eh? William must be trying to endear himself to the East, inaugurating you.” Davis smirked, a fringe of dark brown hair falling over his squarish face. “How does it feel being a publicity badge?”
“Like I’m carrying this place.” Golzar drew the weapon in one even movement. She matched his expression with a sharper grin. “With people like you, the Guild image needs all the help it can get.”
The Everpresent captain raised her hand, a signal for the fight to begin.
Golzar stole the first strike. She had one gloved hand on the blade of her longsword, and the other on the hilt. Bryn had seen her slip on those gloves before the fight. Half-swording was allowed in duels, but no doubt Davis wouldn’t have seen it coming. The Everpresent hero just barely managed to dodge the swipe at his shoulder.
In these duels, it was unspoken that the winner would win by disarmament. It was a contrast to friendly spars, where an accumulation of points by striking someone with the wooden sword was the key to victory. Heroes used real swords in duels over perceived slights, and so disarming the opponent was the only way to defeat them without causing injury.
It was almost like fighting with a staff, the way Golzar was striking at him. She aimed the weak of her sword at his hands and wrists, forcing him back on the defensive.
Davis gripped the hilt of his sword with both hands and struggled to wrench himself away from her quick movements.
But when Golzar paused briefly between attacks, Davis took the opportunity. He heaved the sword up with all his strength and brought it down. The motion forced Golzar to shift her hand away from the blade, parrying his blow with both hands on the hilt. Now, it seemed they were even.
Bryn watched with fists clenched as Golzar pivoted to the side, redirecting Davis’s blade without dropping her own. Her fingers must have been locked painfully tight over the hilt, but Golzar’s expression remained unchanged.
With a lunge, she closed the distance with Davis and struck again, this time with a two-handed wield. Davis parried. The blades connected, and then moved apart in a circular motion.
Suddenly, Golzar’s elbow seemed to drift at an odd angle. Bryn took a few seconds before they realised what she was doing. She was using the cross of her sword to hook Davis’s blade right from the root. With a grunt, she shoved hard, tearing the sword from Davis’ grip and sending it clattering to the ground.
“It’s decided then. We leave them alone, Davis.” The Everpresent captain said with a sigh of relief. She didn’t bother looking at the small family, terrified as they were, with even a hint of apology. It was as though she’d resolved a small paperwork dispute in the palace offices.
Golzar dabbed the sweat from her brow. Bryn watched as two children ran off into their grandfather’s waiting arms. The withered man seemed to crumple onto the ground in relief.
Meanwhile, Davis seethed, fists clenched. “Men! We leave now.”
The look in Golzar’s eyes as they took off could burn down a village.
Bryn reached out a hand, offering to take the heavy sword from her, but Golzar shook her head. She lifted the scabbard from the ground and carefully slid the blade back into its sheath. The weapon fit into its rack with a click.
A cool breeze swept through the plains. The audience began to disperse. This sort of duel was an every day sight, perhaps. But the real reasons for this one were unknown to everyone, Bryn thought. They looked down again.
The day they killed her mother, Golzar was twelve. She liked to play a game of ball with an inflated pig’s bladder, out in the alleyway with the other village children. They would all gather at the backdoor of the smithy, where the dirt path faced a large empty square. Occasionally a scolding voice would come from within: “If you have time to waste, Golz’, you can sweep up these filings!”
It was a group of faceless raiders. Bandits, from a time where people didn’t give bandits names or flags to recognise them by. But people told stories, and Golzar did learn them.
Those in the taverns called a particular group the Wolves. Said they came in droves, packed so tightly one could not slip a piece of straw between their ranks without getting an arm lopped off. Golzar saw it, that day.
She remembered a wet splat. The head rolling on the floor. Her fingers freezing on the stone railing at the edge of the roof. The thought: she had to get out of there. And still, her legs not moving.
The raiders arrived as a cloud of grey smoke, hooves of mustangs making a storm on the dusty ground.
“Take the others and run!” Her mother drew the longsword at her hip, her cloak fluttering about her. There was no goodbye, just the order. Golzar grabbed the youngest kid by the wrist and started to sprint.
“Wait, where are we going?!” one of them cried out.
Golzar thought of the gate towards the side of the village. It opened up to the river. Maybe they could swim, and not be tracked. “The West gate. Hurry!”
But it wasn’t enough. When they could see the grey stone blocks in the distance, Golzar skidded to a halt. Several of the children bumped against her back. A group of tall, shadowy men with gold glinting from their chests met eyes with them. They were far away, but in this memory, Golzar thought she could see one of them grin.
Golzar turned, about to yell at the rest of them to run, but there was a whizzing noise and suddenly two bodies dropped dead around her. They hadn’t even noticed the bows. She was still holding on to someone’s wrist, and she pulled, and she took off in other direction. She weaved around the broken fence posts, the carts. Her instinct for dodging drove her forward.
But then the hand she was holding went limp and she was all alone.
Later, she would try to go back to the corpses, but at that point all she could think of was to run.
Dusky blue covered the sky, with slivers of indigo where the clouds had developed shadows. They would have to move fast. Golzar began to walk away from the crowd, Bryn following soon after. Each mounted their horses again. The pathway to the palace wormed its way into the morning before them.
Golzar rode slightly ahead. As they passed by a small field, Bryn saw her pluck a wild wheat stalk from the side of the road. They moved to catch up with her.
“. . . What’d you do that for?” Bryn said, tilting their head forward.
“Some people can only talk with swords, Bryn.” Golzar put the wheat stalk between her teeth, beginning to chew.
Bryn looked up at how the sky was preparing yet another spring shower. They had heard little snippets of the story over the years. “Ya’ know I’m supposed to be stopping you from duelling, right?”
“Sure. Why didn’t you?” Golzar chuckled.
Bryn looked at her, eyes wide in surprise.
“If you think I’m some kind of heartbroken orphan, you are sorely mistaken. I simply learn from my mistakes. And I intend to learn.”
At the foot of the hill, a scene that had become so familiar to Bryn over the past few days, they dismounted and handed their horses over to the stables.
“Bit of rain coming, eh?” the old man remarked. He walked away quickly, not expecting a reply.
Bryn tried to remember if they had packed an extra coat. The rest of the walk up to the palace was spent in silence. They were meant to obtain one last piece of information about the Queen’s whereabouts, just to confirm their theory, and then let Golzar know. A curl of their hair slipped out of the half-ponytail they wore it in. Bryn tucked it back with a finger, watching Golzar as she got her pack ready.
Golzar slipped the broken wheat stalk into her coat pocket, protectively, possessively, and then turned to enter the palace gates.
This wing of the palace grounds was new to both of them. It was the entry to the kitchen building, with a pattern of blue and white mosaics decorating the floor. With this weather, the corridor was dark, despite one half of it being open to the air. The path was lit by the red glow of torches. Bryn slunk along the wall to avoid crashing into any of the servants dashing back and forth through the passage.
“So. This is it.” Bryn nodded in the general direction of a small turquoise door.
Golzar hummed in acknowledgement. “Thank you. Sorry for the trouble.”
Why was she apologising? It was a question they’d been turning around in their head.
“Don’t worry,” Golzar said. “I won’t be getting us into any more trouble.”
Bryn nodded once. Since when did Golzar worry about troubling them? Bryn liked to think it was unspoken between them, that Golzar was always sorry for causing Bryn trouble, and that Bryn was always not sorry for busting her out of it, or trying to keep her from getting there in the first place. Something prickled the back of their neck at thinking how Golzar had made the whole thing explicit all of a sudden. She seemed oddly tense, nowadays. Bryn didn’t like it. They pressed their lips in a line.
“Now . . . . gifts, gifts, gifts,” Golzar’s muttering faded away as she headed in. Bryn wondered what she was going on about.
As Golzar slipped through the door, Bryn turned their attention to the other end of the long passage. A flash of white caught their eye. They removed their cloak from their shoulders and folded it over their left forearm, attempting to look like they were headed somewhere to mind their own business, and then followed the glimpse.
They had a hunch. Attendants of the Queen tended to wear that shade of white – not quite the pristine colour worn by priests, but something a bit warmer in tone. It set them apart from the other palace servants and warned people of approaching royalty, Bryn thought.
The end of the corridor was darker, shaded by an alcove above. They saw the person in the white garments. It was Myra, the handmaiden. She would not be accompanying the Queen and Golzar today, it seemed.
If they could get more information on her, surely it would be valuable to Golzar. Bryn sighed. Sometimes it took actions, rather than words, they thought. They may have their reservations, but Bryn wasn’t about to quit their commander on a quest.
Bryn cast one last glance back towards the turquoise door. Then, they followed Myra into the kitchens.