Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
Jerica leaned over the castle wall, loosing an arrow directly into the face of the Nykerian soldier climbing up the ladder in front of her. He let out a guttural yelp, blood burbling from his gaping mouth, as he fell straight towards the ground – knocking several of his countrymen from the ladder as he descended. She straightened, reaching over her shoulder for another arrow. Her hand was met by open air.
“Kieran, arrows,” she muttered, turning towards her squire.
He was a pitiable sight. His sandy brown skin was layered with grime and darkened with the sun, from all the hours they’d spent in battle over the past three days. He pushed his helmet back out of his dark brown eyes and hastily handed her a full quiver, taking the empty one that she shrugged off her back. He knelt to refill her quiver with arrows, armor clanking around on his too-small frame as he moved.
She pulled an arrow and quickly found it a home in an enemy soldier climbing up a ladder a few meters to her left. She turned towards the right and sank one – two – arrows in the soldiers raising yet another ladder towards the wall.
Jerica turned back towards the left, trying to find the source of the panicked cry. One of her soldiers – a rookie, nearly as green as her squire – was looking at her in desperation.
“General,” he repeated, then gestured wildly behind him. “The gate!”
“Kieran,” Jerica said, turning back towards the trembling boy next to her. “Another quiver. And stay here.”
Her eyes landed on her Lieutenant, Akeno Haider, as he hurried towards her. His pale skin was burnt to a crisp, and monolid eyes heavy and tired as he looked to her for orders. She took the quiver from her squire, keeping her eyes on her Lieutenant. “Watch Kieran.”
She turned on her heel, looking for her soldier. “Take me to the problem.”
“Ma’am!” he answered, whirling around. He sprinted along the wall, darting around the various fights littering the surface. Her soldiers shifted like a wave, allowing her to jog along after the frightened recruit that was frantically leading her towards the gate.
The soldier stopped, gesturing over the wall and coughing, too out of breath to explain why he’d been sent to get her. War Lord Ainsley hurried towards her, glowering. She raised an eyebrow in a silent question. “They brought out a ram.”
Jerica took a few steps forward to peer over the wall. Sure enough, there was a group of Nykerian soldiers assembling on the ground below them, a massive battering ram in the center of the group. It looked like it took around fifty soldiers to lift the ram – and many, many more were gathered around with shields to guard the soldiers carrying the ram.
Lord Ainsley stepped up just behind her. He was an average-sized man, maybe a bit taller than the soldiers around them, but compared to Jerica’s small frame he towered over her. He looked down with the fierce green eyes that matched her own, rubbing his face tiredly. “Think you can take care of that?”
“Anything for you, Uncle,” she answered, voice sickly sweet. He rolled his eyes. She smirked and weighed her quiver in her hand. “Didn’t bring enough arrows for this.”
Lord Ainsley waved his hand, and several soldiers hurried forward. He looked them over briefly, then gestured at Jerica. “You’re taking commands from General Ainsley now.”
“Gather more arrows,” Jerica ordered tersely, turning her back on the soldiers as she peered over the wall again. The guard of the advancing battering ram was fairly complete – most angles impenetrable for the wall of shields. She knocked an arrow and stepped next to a decorative pillar, peering out from behind it as she watched the advancing ram.
She waited until there was a narrow gap between shields then loosed an arrow. The battle was too loud for her to hear if anyone cried out – there were various screams and the clanging of blades and armor all around her – but she saw the advancement of the battering ram hesitate for the briefest of moments. She saw a flash of someone’s leg and loosed another arrow.
The soldier stumbled forward, out of formation, as the arrow sank in the tender curve between his shin guards and boot. Jerica took the brief window to loose arrow after arrow into formation, striking the next soldier in line in his arm-pit, the soldiers carrying the ram instead of shields in the side of their necks. She picked off five soldiers before they managed to shuffle their positions around to close the hole. She lazily loosed another arrow at the soldier who initially broke the formation, ending his misery with a shaft to the eye.
She ducked back behind the pillar, holding her empty quiver out to one of the soldiers and taking a filled one instead. Arrows clumsily clanked off the pillar behind her. She smirked as she heard the cry spreading through the soldiers below.
She’d heard that word many times over the past several days, and she relished it more each time it landed on her ears. It had started as the Nykerian word for carnage, but over the past several years had become her nickname among Nykerian people. This week it had all but turned into a swear-word.
She peeked around the pillar once more and saw a large pool of blood draining from under the shields that had filled in the hole she’d caused moments before. She made quick work of the remaining soldiers, sending arrows through narrow gaps in the shields and into the guards’ ankles, picking off the advancing men one by one until the few remaining around the battering ram fled, being careful to guard themselves with the shields.
She pressed her back against the tall pillar, taking a deep breath, as she looked at the soldiers who had constantly handed her filled quivers as she quickly went through arrows. She rubbed her face. The skin was sore and dry, and her lips were cracking from the brutal heat. She slowly let the breath out. “Sanguis.”
“SANGUIS!” The soldiers cheered.
A victorious roar went up from the nearby soldiers on the wall.
And then just as suddenly as the cheer broke out, it was silenced, when a loud boom echoed across the battlefield. She whirled around once again, just in time to see a purplish cloud of smoke rising from the center of the camp. Her stomach sank.
If Sanguis was the name that could strike fear into the hearts of Nykerian soldiers, Valeren was the name that Atraians avoided at all costs. He was a small-time sorcerer – not as powerful as the sorcerer, Lord Biryn, who held the role of Head Advisor in Atraya. But strong enough to cause substantial damage when he arrived.
“Get Lord Ainsley,” Jerica hissed at one of the soldiers. She pointed at another. “You go find Lord Biryn.”
“I’m here.” The soldiers nearby parted as War Lord Ainsley shouldered his way towards Jerica. “But do go find Biryn.”
Lord Ainsley turned his gaze on Jerica. “Valeren?”
“It can’t be anyone else.”
Lord Ainsley cursed.
Jerica looked at the last of the colorful cloud dissipating into the sky, and a thought struck her. It was nearly center of the field; just over the–
She whirled around back on her uncle. “The tunnels.”
“Absolutely not,” Lord Ainsley answered.
“They are right over the entrance,” Jerica said, gesturing at the battlefield. “He won’t move that quickly. He always comes in with the theatrics. I can get there.”
“It’s not safe,” Lord Ainsley said, shaking his head.
“And this is?” Jerica spat, gesturing vaguely around her. Her right arm was splattered with dried blood she’d earned when she killed a Nykerian who got a bit closer than she’d intended to let him. He sighed. “Derik, I can do this.”
Uncle Derik huffed another sigh, looking out at the battlefield, then back towards Jerica. He shook his head, rubbing his face again. His skin was just as battered and weathered as everyone else’s; the sun inhospitable to everyone alike. “Fine. Take Rekard with you.”
“I don’t need him.”
“Okay,” Uncle Derik said. “Take him anyway.”
“That’s an order,” he snarled.
Jerica took a deep breath, desperately longing to argue, but snapped her mouth shut when she saw the soldiers watching them intently. It wouldn’t do to model insubordination to the War Lord in front of the troops. She nodded curtly. “Sir.”
“I’ll send word for him to meet you at the entrance.”
“Yes, sir,” she answered, turning on her heel, then hesitated as she had a thought. She turned back to Lord Ainsley. “Two Rangers as well?”
“Two?” Lord Ainsley questioned.
“One to guard each side of the tunnel.”
Lord Ainsley thought for a moment then nodded. “That’s reasonable. I’ll have them meet you at the entrance as well.”
“Sir.” She turned back towards the path, heading further from where she’d left her squire. He was fine, she was sure. Akeno was one of the few soldiers she would actually trust to cover her in a battle. She’d hand-picked him from all of her soldiers to be her Lieutenant, despite the complaints of the entire Council, who disapproved of her choosing a first-generation Atraian over the many natives she had to pick from.
Jerica hurried down the steps off the wall and picked her way through the chaos on the ground below, with soldiers and barracks boys scurrying back and forth trying to reinforce the gate from the inside. She made her way along the palace wall for several hundred meters, then suddenly cut down a street towards an aging monastery. Her cousin walked in the door opposite of her just as she arrived.
“I don’t need your help,” she spat, starting down the main aisle of the sanctuary.
“Hello to you too,” Rekard said sarcastically, following close behind. “Glad the battle is going well. Happy to see you’re still alive. All that fun stuff.”
“We both know Derik sent you to babysit,” she snapped, reaching around under the podium in the front of the room for the hidden lever.
“You know as well as I do that Father wouldn’t let anyone do something like this alone,” Rek said, pressing his shoulder against the podium and helping her push it forward as she disengaged the lever. He grunted with the effort. “Honestly I’m not sure why he’s letting us go with just the two of us.”
“Because the tunnels are narrow,” Jerica said, reaching down to remove the small panel of wood that covered the floor where the podium had been. She patted Rekard’s muscular abdomen. “Don’t know if you’re even gonna fit down there with me, fatty.”
He snorted, glaring at her.
Jerica smirked and leaned back on her heels, quickly shucking off her armor. It’d been years since she’d been down to the tunnels, and it still hadn’t been long enough. They were built millennia ago – long enough that no one was quite sure what the original plan for them had been. In the more recent past, they’d been equipped with series of steel gates that could be sealed off, in case enemies ever managed to gain access to any of the many corridors that snaked under the city and out into the fields that the Nykerians now occupied.
They became the smallest they could. Jerica wore a thin tunic with no sleeves and short underpants, holding her bow and a single quiver. Rekard was similarly dressed, sword in hand. He stood and grabbed a torch from the wall of the monastery then turned back towards where Jerica still knelt next to the opening. “After you, Princess.”