The Soldier’s Wife 5: Why Soldiers Fight
The Thirty-Ninth Day of Spring, the Three Thousand and Fiftieth Year of the Kingdom
The alarm thundered.
Why can’t you let me mourn? the exhausted Lamahavi thought. Her eyelids felt like lead weights, her swollen ankles throbbed, she had to pass water once more, and the light-cursed demons attacked the Bulwark.
Frantic drums pounded through the Ring City, summoning defenders to drive back the enemy into the Diamond Ward and keep them from flooding into the city. More good men like Lamahavi’s husband would die today.
A single year was all she’d had with him. It was nothing at all. A fleeting moment in a life. Her dreams of growing old with Yelaikav snuffed away by the resinsword of one of the ant-like demons who sought to drown this world in darkness.
She stared down at her husband’s corpse as she prepared his body for the funerary boat. It would float him down the Fraught Curve, the river that flowed past the Ring City and out of the Forbidden Arc. At its terminus, where the waters would pour into the sea, lay the City of the Embalmed Dead. The hallowed resting site for the Songblade Knights and their families, especially those men who had died in the defense of not just the Forbidden Kingdom, but the entire world at large. All those ignorant nations who did not know how Lamahavi’s people—Lamahavi herself—suffered to keep them safe.
Yelaikav looked like he was sleeping, his cheeks pale and smooth. His features relaxed, eyes closed. His hands were folded across his chest, gripping the carved-bone hilt of his Songblade, the hallowed weapon he’d wielded. It was her right to keep it in trust for their child, if she carried a son in her belly, or to let it be buried with Yelaikav in the mausoleum city.
One day, she would be granted a place at his side, to lie interred and preserved against the decay of the world.
The alarms thundered. Boomed. The drums pounded with a frantic energy, and she did not care. Nothing mattered. The world had become ash, smothered beneath bitterness. The light of her life, the bright, shining diamond that had made living in the Ring City bearable, had been stolen from her.
He would never compose terrible poetry to make her smile. Tell silly jokes to make her laugh. Share kisses to make her sigh. He would never get to see his child in this life. She trembled as the injustice overwhelmed her.
“Why?” she cried out to Layiv, the Diamond Lady. The goddess who’d erected the Diamond Ward and charged her ancestors to defend the world. “Why him? Why my husband? Did you need him in your White Choir? Why couldn’t you let him stay with me? Even another year. You could have at least let him hold our child! Answer me!”
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
“Shut up!” she spat at the drums, her bloodshot eyes wild. A bestial madness twisted her young face. “You’re why he’s dead! You killed him! That booming. You summoned him to his death!”
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
She screeched, irrationality spilling through her. A tangle of brown hair fell in thick strands to her shoulders. A matted mess. She scratched at her face, raking red lines down her smooth cheeks as the drums kept pounding. They thundered from every direction.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
But they wouldn’t stop. They kept resounding. She leaned over her husband, her wrinkled kimono shifting over her round belly. She was close to delivery. Weeks or even days away. She pressed her face into his chest as she sobbed. Her grief poured out of her. She clutched his orange kimono, fingers scratching at the silk.
“Come back to me!” she begged. “Please, please, come back to me. I need you.”
A shadow fell on her.
“Yel?” she asked, this moment of irrationality seizing her that her husband had descended from the White Choir to be with her once more. That the Diamond Lady had relented and freed him from his service in the next life to be with her.
It wasn’t Yelaikav.
It wasn’t even human.
She stared in stupefied shock at the demon approaching her, the setting sun stretching its long shadow to fall around her kneeling form. Its umbral twin hugged her body in impending night. The first time she’d seen one of the hulking things, the inhuman visage had sent gibbering terror through her. Numbed by grief and exhaustion, she now merely stared bleary-eyed at the monster, not registering the danger that approached her.
It stood on two legs, slender and covered in a black, waxy carapace, knees creaking with each step. The legs descended from its armored thorax. Thrusting behind it was its swollen abdomen, a few spindly hairs bristling on the soft flesh. Two pairs of arms thrust from its thorax, each one like the legs, armored in its chitin. It held a greatsword in its four hands, a beastly weapon made of black resin hardened to the toughness of diamond. Its triangular head fixed on her. Eyes like black onyx, covered with many facets, gleamed. Antennae spamed and its sharp, crushing mandibles spasmed. A scent like vomit, the bite of sour bile, filled her nose.
It came to kill her.
She didn’t care about that. Nothing mattered to her. Everything had been taken from her. She stared listlessly at its advance, the boom of the drums fading. In a small corner of Lamahavi’s mind, it registered that the breach must be titanic for a demon to get so far from the Bulwark. For every drum in the city to be pounding.
I’ll see you soon, my love, drifted through the haze of her thoughts like a piece of flotsam bobbing across a fog-choked lake. It hardly did more than eddy through her exhaustion.
The demons held no mercy. They came from another world. A universe of darkness they sought to escape. They would transform this world and cover it with their foul hives. Slaughter every human and replace them with their squirming larvae.
Lamahavi knew it was her duty to fight, but . . .
Duty had made her into a widow.
Honor had left her broken.
The demon stopped on the other side of her husband’s corpse. It raised that huge blade to cut her in half. Ruddy light played on the smooth, black surface. The edge glinted in the setting sunlight. She sat transfixed by her impending death.
Her child kicked her in the ribs.
Pain burst from the impact. It slammed into that fog smothering her thoughts. A reminder that one part of her husband had survived. The blade slashed down at her. Lamahavi acted. She snatched the Songblade’s handle and threw herself back in one motion.
She landed on her back, her pregnant stomach making the movement awkward. The blade struck the stone where she’d knelt moments before. A crystalline crack echoed through the air. The demon chittered as it raised its sword and advanced on her. She struggled to stand. She pushed up with her elbows. She would never dodge the blow before it struck her.
The sword slashed down at her again, hacking towards her belly.
She smacked the handle of the Songblade into her thigh. A gesture her husband had done a hundred times. The tuning fork hidden in the hollow cylinder hummed to life. The sound activated the diamond embedded at the other end.
The blade sang.
A sword of light appeared. A glowing brilliance of white, the manifestation of the Tone of Diamond. She thrust it up before her to ward off the attack. The resin blade slammed into the radiance. The blade sang louder as it repulsed the attack. She didn’t even feel the strength of the demon, the titanic power it held.
It was nothing before the power of the Tones of Harmony.
She shuddered as it drew back its blade. She had a chance. She had never fought with a Songblade, but desperation animated her body. She had to protect her baby. With great effort, she sat up and got her sandal-clad feet beneath her. She heaved upright with a groan, thigh and calf muscles protesting after hours of kneeling. Knee joints popped. Her lower back throbbed.
She fell into a fighting stance but swayed, unsteady. Her pregnancy made her more top-heavy and threw off her balance. She leaned back to compensate, but it changed how she stood, affecting her footwork.
The sword slashed at her.
She raised the blade before it. It weighed hardly anything. Only the handle, made from the hollow wing bone of an Imperial Condor, had any substance. The sword sang as it caught the enemy blade. The demon’s mandibles snapped together. Its antennae twitched.
It swung at her with fast strokes. The huge sword moved like a black blur before her. Lamahavi gasped. Her sandaled feet scraped across the flagstones. Its clawed feet clicked with its steps as it drove her back.
The blade flashed before her as she parried, struggling to hold back the demonic attack. Her left hand cradled her belly. Her child kicked with ferocity and squirmed inside of her. A powerful cramp blazed through her nethers.
Liquid spilled down her thighs and splashed at her feet.
“No,” she groaned. The pain twisted through her stomach.
The demon didn’t care that she had entered labor. It only wanted to cut off her head. To kill her child fighting to enter this world. She screamed against the contraction squeezing about her womb and blocked the next attack.
She had to find an opening. She had to dispatch the demon. She wobbled, battling against collapse. Sweat spilled down her face, soaking her thin eyebrows. A drop ran into her left eye. She blinked against the stinging salt.
The demon swept in.
She didn’t know the forms to attack. She only knew how to fight with a spear. All she could do was hastily throw it before her and deflect or parry the powerful blows. If she didn’t attack and kill it, the pain of labor would soon overwhelm her.
“No!” she screamed her defiance at the demon. “You won’t take all of him away from me!”
Lamahavi had to treat her sword like a spear. She felt more comfortable with the weapon. She aimed the point at the thing’s carapace. Would this work?
Its sword swept in hard. She jerked her arm to the left, moving the lower half of the blade while keeping the point aimed at the demon’s thorax. She struck the weapon to the side, deflecting the resinsword past her shoulder. Her pregnant belly heaving before her, she lunged a riposte thrust at the enemy’s chest like she held a spear.
Her legs snapped forward. She screamed through the agony contracting through her womb. Her child kicked. She stepped on sandals and socks soaked in her amniotic fluid. A sweet smell permeated the air, clashing with the bile stench of the demon. She rammed the point of the shining blade at its chest.
The glowing tip struck.
The demon’s carapace melted beneath the purity of the weapon’s song. The radiance sizzled against the chitin and burned through its armor. She buried the sword into its chest. Mandibles snapped at her as the thing died, a final attack to steal her life.
She sliced up with the sword on instinct. The radiant blade cut through the demon’s shell with disturbing ease. No resistance at all. In a heartbeat, it flashed up through its thorax and split the demon’s head in half. It fell half-apart before her as its momentum crashed it into her. A mandible stabbed into her shoulder.
She staggered back and twisted her body, bending half over to protect her belly from the collapsing demon’s impact. The mandible ripped from her shoulder. Blood spurted. She staggered, her contractions twisting through her guts.
The Songblade fell from her hand. It hit the ground with a jarring impact, silencing the tuning fork. The humming died along with the radiant blade. She didn’t care. She screamed out again. The pain was coming so fast now. She fell to her knees. Blood oozed from the wound in her left shoulder. That arm barely wanted to work as she fumbled to open her kimono.
“Help!” she screamed, the drums thundering in the distance.
It was all happening so fast. She thrust open her kimono and howled as her shoulder blazed with agony. Her screams resounded through the jetty. She unfolded it on the ground and then sank onto it, her thighs spread apart. She wore only her shorter under kimono. She had no one to help her, and her child came.
She pushed at the contractions. She screeched, the cry tearing at her throat, as the pain ripped through her nethers. Time lost all meaning to her as the drums echoed in the distance. Her cries mixed with the sounds of battle resounding through the city. Men died in all directions.
But she could feel her child coming. Sliding out. She had to keep pushing. Instinct controlled Lamahavi. She had midwifed twice since arriving at the Ringed City. She knew she had to push with the contractions. Her entire face contorted as she kept bearing down. Her cheeks blazed scarlet as she screamed again.
The head crowned. She kept pushing. Lamahavi whimpered, hoping her child would be fine with no one to grab the little baby. She squeezed her eyes shut as, finally, her baby was born. She panted, sucking in deep breaths.
“No, no, no!” she wailed. She lifted the child into her arms, covered in afterbirth and smeared in blood, skin turning blue. Such a tiny thing. A boy, eyes closed, mouth covered. She hooked her finger, cleared his mouth, then brought the child to her shoulder.
She patted his bottom. The child squirmed. Then the cries rose from his lungs. A healthy wail. Color spread across his body. Tears spilled from her eyes as she cradled her little baby boy. So tiny and fragile, his fists squeezed tight as he cried.
“Mahaikan,” she whispered, the name her husband had chosen on his deathbed. “Mahaikan, look at you.” Despite the pain and exhaustion, she smiled broadly. She looked up at the heavens. “Yelaikav, we have a son!”
They found her hours later, lying in a stupor with her baby crying at her breast. She lay between her husband’s body and the demon she’d killed with a Songblade. Blood soaked her shoulder. Medics were called while whispers echoed around her.
Lamahavi understood her husband more now than she ever had. Why he’d fought. Even why he’d even died. What she held in her arms was the most important thing in the world. Mahaikan was more than hers and Yelaikav’s son; he was the future. Theirs. Their race’s. The world’s. Every baby held the promise of greatness. A promise that it was all worth the price she’d paid in blood and tears.
Soldiers understood that. The good ones, at least. The ones who were not conscripted but who made the choice to stand day after day at the edge of order and stare into the abyss. To hold back the madness for one more year, one more month.
One more hour.
She had held it back today long enough to bring about a miracle.
The soldier’s wife vowed to stay in the Ringed City. To raise her son and teach him what his father had died for. She would help those she could. Her husband was dead, but there were other good men who stood against the darkness.
The light could only shine bright so long as hope remained. Anyone could take up its light and slay the night. Even a pregnant woman smothered by grief and exhaustion, wracked by pain and agony, could take it up.
Lamahavi would keep her husband’s blade in trust for their son. Every day, she would think of Yelaikav. She knew he sang to her from the White Choir above. She had the strength to stand day after day and protect the future until the time came for her to float down the Fraught Curve and lie beside her husband until the world ended.
As she held her son to her breast, she knew so long as hope blazed bright, the end would never come.