The Soldier’s Wife 4: The Tragic Purpose of Life
The Thirty-Seventh Day of Spring, the Three Thousand and Fiftieth Year of the Kingdom
Lamahavi knelt on the reed mat, her pregnant belly swelling the folds of her cotton kimono and the protective, gray smock she wore over it. Her stomach made her current task more difficult, but she didn’t complain. Everyone in the Ringed City worked towards one goal: defending the world.
She need only glance out the window in the workshop to witness the Diamond Ward distorting the blue sky. In it writhed the wound upon reality: the Black Blood Rift.
She’d carefully shaped the wood into dowels to fashion crossbow bolts. It was a skill she had learned since her arrival in the city just over a year ago. After straightening them, she used her knife with care to shave off excess slivers of wood. They curled from the shaft before falling to land on the swell of her stomach. The smock was tied at her back, covering the front of a kimono decorated in her namesake: white orchids.
Outside, the twang of crossbows echoed as a group of wives practiced their marksmanship. Though their husbands, Songblade Knights all, fought the demons, every woman knew devastation could fall and they would have to take up spear and crossbow to fight with their men. Lamahavi had already fought with Yelaikav, her husband, on their journey to the Ringed City last spring.
Her son or daughter kicked inside of her. Vipaloza, a trained healer like Lamahavi and whose husband served in the same company as Yelaikav, believed Lamahavi would have a daughter. “Your child is riding high, not low. I am certain you will have a girl. I’ve delivered eleven babies since living here, and I have never been wrong about the sex of a woman’s child.”
Lamahavi wouldn’t mind a daughter, but she ached for a son more. Her own little Yelaikav to raise. She enjoyed watching the boys play and yearned for one of her own, a mixture of her and Yelaikav. Either boy or girl, she would love her child fiercely and strive to protect him or her.
Songblade Knights had the greatest motivation to kill the demons. While they all served to defend the world, they had something more precious close at hand to protect. The knights had an aphorism: Love is the backbone of courage. Love is the foundation of bravery. Love is the bedrock of civilization. Having their wives and children behind them was incentive to fight with all their passion.
She sat down the shaft and picked up the next dowel to be trimmed. She stared at it, giving it a critical eye. She’d already straightened a dozen using steam to soften the wood and a series of jigs to hold them straight while they dried. Now they needed to be smooth. She found a protrusion in need of trimming, humming as she worked.
The thwacks of crossbow fire continued. The women of the Apple Blossom Octant, hers and Yelaikav’s company, practiced. With her pregnancy so far progressed, she was exempt from strenuous training, but making crossbow bolts was a useful task she could perform.
The last year had been hard. Full of terror for her husband. The dread of waiting to find out if he would survive never grew easier. She had found the strength to endure it, but every time a man was bought into her infirmary wounded, she feared it would be Yelaikav.
The demons were active. A hard year. Losses were mounting. There had been three breaches that tunneled through the ground and burst out behind the Ringed City. A company of rangers had died stemming one, the famed horsemen and women who patrolled the Forbidden Plains searching for such eruption of the ant-like monsters. Another breach had laid siege to one of the Hundred Forts, the next line of defense before civilization began.
A shadow fell on her.
“A beauty moon full. Shaping death, making life. The contrast sublime.”
She smiled at the poem her husband spoke. “I like that.” She set down the dowel and cupped her belly. “Moon full, huh? I do feel a little round.”
“A little, Lama?” Yelaikav stepped in wearing his blue-lacquered armor. The lamellar plates were stitched together to allow him to move with ease. Silk cords held the various pieces about his body. His great helm hung from the sash through which he tucked his bone-handled Songblade. A pattern of white diamonds adorned his armor, painted on by Lamahavi herself. “Your belly is as round as any of the seven moons.”
“What are you saying?” she asked, curious how he’d turn this into a joke. “That I’m fat?” In some women, it would be an attack or a trap. For her, it was a challenge.
“Why, that my child is a big lass. Proof of my prowess.”
She rolled her eyes. “And I have nothing to do with that. I’m as tall as you.” She was an Easterner, whose people were the tallest of the three races that made up the Forbidden Kingdom. It gave her delicate features and the brown hair she wore pinned up with an ivory comb. “I think if we have a big daughter, I am as much to thank as you.”
“Then we can share the boasting joy when our daughter towers over all the boys.” He stomped forward in an exaggerated manner, his armor jingling. “She’ll be the terror of the sands. No boys will try anything with my daughter because they’ll be too scared of her.”
“So, every father’s dream?” Lamahavi’s smile grew. “For their daughter to be a sweet maiden whom they don’t have to worry about sneaking off to the bamboo grove?”
“Exactly,” he said, holding out his hands, his gloves doffed and tucked into his sash.
She took them and he helped her stand, something more difficult these days. She groaned, feeling the pressure in her bladder growing. Their child squirmed around in excitement and she winced, a foot kicking into her liver.
“Well, I seem to recall you liked it when I snuck off with you to the bamboo grove.”
His grin grew. “Well, you’re not my daughter. It was your father who had to worry about the boys luring you away.”
“Luring? Trust me, you didn’t lure me.”
“Luckily, our daughter will not be a woman of loose morals like her mother,” he added, still grinning.
“Loose morals?” Her lips cracked. “You weren’t complaining at all about my morals that night.”
“And I never shall.” He cupped her face and kissed her. She’d only had one other man. Vevoztaj was dead, though their relationship had ended years before his passing. He just wasn’t right for her. She needed a man who could make her smile with his teasing.
When he broke the kiss, she took his arm and said, “I will make sure our daughter knows all the ways to lure those boys off to the grove and how to make them cry out to Layiv like you did.”
“You wild wench,” he gasped. “My own wife conspiring to help all those lecherous boys take advantage of our sweet daughter?”
“Maybe she’ll take advantage of them. Like I did with you in the bamboo grove.”
He laughed and she giggled.
“Good thing I have my blade. I’ll make sure those boys are too scared to rise to the occasion.”
“Then our poor daughter will die a spinster,” Lamahavi said in mock lament. She picked up her spear leaning against the wall by the exit to the carpentry shop. A length of polished wood her height with a steel blade as long as her forearm. Wings thrust from the side just as long as the point.
“A small price she’ll have to pay to keep those boys from ruining her purity. My daughter shall stay my little girl even when she’s old and wrinkled.”
“And curse you every day.”
“Such a cruel wife I married,” he groaned.
They stepped out onto the courtyard, passing the wives collecting their bolts, practice over. The women greeted the couple, Yelaikav nodding to them. Lamahavi waddled at his side. It was the only way to describe how she walked now. That ache in her bladder grew more and more pressing.
Talking with Yelaikav helped.
“So, what shall we name our tall spinster daughter?” she asked as they headed into the narrow alley leading to their apartments. This part of the Ringed City was a warren of buildings, a natural maze to confuse any demons who breached this area and to provide tight choke points for the defenders to stop an invasion.
“Something strong. We could use the characters for sword and blood.”
“Yelaikav, you are not naming our daughter Bloodsword or Bloody Sword or Sword of Blood.”
“Entrails? The character has an almost cute charm in the ways it wraps around itself.”
“I wouldn’t let you name our son with the character for entrails,” she said, shaking her head. Her own name, Lamahavi, held the characters for White and Orchid. His, Yelaikav, held Sword and Diamond.
“Mmm, Black Death?”
“Your humor is off today, husband.”
“Really? So no Fragrant Corpse or Sickly Flower or Raven Claw?”
“Those are disgusting names.”
“Not much better for a daughter.”
“Did you get hit on the head?”
He gave her an innocent grin. “Why do you ask?”
She arched her eyebrows at him.
“How about . . . Purple Vulture?”
She shook her head.
“Thought that was better than Smelly Vulture,” he muttered in feigned innocence. “Okay… Uh… Fat Bear.”
“She’s going to be tall, not an ogress.”
“That’s a . . .” She trailed off. “Wait, what?”
“Pink Dawn. Too gruesome?”
“No,” she said. “That would make a lovely name for a girl.”
“What shall we name it if it’s a boy?” he pondered. “Iron Spear?”
“Maybe,” she said, mulling the appropriate names over in her mind. “We could use—”
The street before them buckled and then heaved upward. Lamahavi froze as dumbfounded shock seized her. A triangular head, a pair of twitching antennae thrusting up above it, reared out of the hole, dirt spilling off, paving stones tumbling to the side. The first of its segmented arms thrust out, each plated in chitin. Sharp mandibles clicked. Its faceted eyes found them.
Her and Yelaikav’s reflections appeared broken in those dark, gem-like eyes. It hissed, a scent of sour bile reeking from it. With a scramble, it burst from the hole, its second pair of arms holding a pair of curving resinswords.
“Layiv’s bright curse!” her husband shouted and thrust her back.
She stumbled as his Songblade ripped from his sheath. She fought to keep her balance, planting a spear point on the pavement while her pregnant frame made her sluggish, top heavy. Her heart raced, cold fear coursing through her veins.
He smacked the handle of his blade against his thigh. The tuning fork hidden in the hollow handle rang out a pure note. A blade of shining white thrust from the end, singing as he swept into his attack, sliding at the creature. A Songblade could cut through anything but the demon’s resin, a black, tar-like substance they regurgitated to build everything from hives to the weapons they wielded.
“Get help!” he shouted. “Sound the alarm, Lama!”
She turned to do just that and gasped. Behind her, the street buckled. Another demon burst out of the narrow street, cobblestones falling off its black, waxy body. It scrambled out of its hole, a long blade clutched in a pair of its hands. Its mandibles clicked as it focused on her.
She set her spear, her sandaled feet spreading into a fight stance. “We’re surrounded!”
The fear wanted to consume her, but she chose to be brave. Every time she came face to face with terror, she had to decide. It wasn’t an easy choice most days, but with her husband behind her, she found it easy as deciding to breathe.
His blade sang as the demon rushed at her on its third pair of limbs. The segmented legs ended at clawed feet. She cried out and lunged forward, thrusting her spear out before her. She struck the demon on the center of the carapace. Her hardened-steel tip cut a thin scratch into the armored thorax, dealing no damage to the demon. The curved surface deflected her thrust to the side. Her blade popped forward, sliding between its first and second set of arms. The long wings jutting from the side of her weapon, like a sword’s crossguard, caught on the demon, holding it at bay.
The monster pressed forward, pushing back. She leaned her weight into her spear, legs bending, her child kicking frantically in her belly. A burst of strength exploded through her, pumping hot through her veins. The muscles in her thighs and calves fought against the demon pushing on her. His blade swung, crashing into the haft of her weapon, nicking the hardwood. But it was thick.
She had to hold. “Yelaikav!”
He didn’t answer. His blade sung behind her. Light flashed and danced as she struggled to hold back the demon. She slid her hands down the haft until she held her spear by the butt, giving herself all the reach she could, but making it harder to keep the weapon straight. The resinsword’s impacts shivered down the shaft.
A sizzling hiss. Blood boiled. A chittering scream.
Yelaikav rushed past her, snarling, “Behind you!”
She pulled her spear away and spun as fast as she could, letting him fight this demon. He’d left one dead, guts spilled out of its abdomen, legs twitching. Another demon crawled out of the hole the first had made. She snarled and rushed at it before it could fully emerge.
She thrust her spear at its head. It swung a limb at the weapon, knocking it to the side. She shifted her stance and swung back, driving the left wing of her weapon right into a faceted eye. It burst, a brackish liquid oozing out. The thing chittered in pain, antennae twitching wildly.
“May the Diamond Lady, divine Layiv, curse you and your foul ilk!” she shouted and drew back her spear. She thrust again, coming at its head from its right side where it was blind.
She struck the creature in the mouth. Her blade buried past its snapping mandibles and jammed into its brain. Its antennae spasmed and flailed. It gurgled as it died. She panted, ripping her spear free. She hardly felt the weight of her child as the battle energy pumped wild through her veins. It sharpened sense and flooded muscles with strength.
She turned to see her husband cutting off the head of the demon she’d held back. It fell to the ground, but two more had crawled out of its hole. His armor creaked as he danced towards them. His great helm bounced on his hip. He thrust his glowing blade at the first one, but its resinsword deflected in a sweeping circle. Her husband flowed into another form. A high slash, Plum Blossoms Dancing, followed by a flurry of four attacks called Badgers in His Den. He cut off an arm, a blade falling to the ground. A hard swipe cut the small joint between thorax and abdomen in half.
The second demon fell on him. Mandibles bit into his armor, scraping on steel. He got his blade into the creature’s thorax, cutting heart and lungs. Black blood coated his armor as it collapsed, revealing more scrambling out the hole.
“Large breech!” she shouted and rushed forward to his side. She held her spear ready.
The deep boom of the taiko drums exploded from nearby. The call to arms beat out their location. They just had to survive. Knights were on their way. She thrust her spear, slamming her weapon’s wings into the sword arm of a demon, opening it up for her husband’s blade to cut through its carapace. Blood splashed her smock, soaking through to her kimono and then to her round belly.
“The Diamond Lady!” she cried.
“For my daughter!” he roared.
They fought together, trained for this moment. She distracted, he killed. The drums beat, but it felt like an eternity since they’d begun. Where was their help? Where were the other Songblade Knights who should be nearby? Time stretched out long, distorting how long they’d fought.
Claws scrabbled behind them. Her husband cursed. He spun around her as she slammed her spear into a demon’s thorax. Clawed hands grabbed the haft, battling with her for control over it. A resinsword slammed down hard into the thick, hard wood. Unfeeling eyes fixated on her.
Her husband shouted, moving behind her. She threw a look over her shoulder. Two more demons had flanked them. They’d crawled out of the hole, pushing the one she’d killed out of the way. Yelaikav fought with the same desperation Lamahavi felt. They were surrounded. They would die here. Their daughter would never stand tall.
“No!” she shouted in frustration. She refused to let that happen. Their family wouldn’t die here. They would survive.
Lamahavi thrust hard with her spear, knocking back the demon. It stumbled, and she swept for its legs, tripping it. Once on the ground, she slammed her spearpoint into the monster’s arm, right at the segmented joint in the limb holding its blade. Her point drove into the vulnerable gap. A loud pop echoed as she severed the connective tissue. They had no bones inside them. It was all on the outside.
The demon chittered and lashed out a foot. Fear empowered her reflexes. She twisted her body so he hit her on the side and not her round belly. The force knocked her into the side of the stone building. She hit it and fell to the ground, spear clattering before her.
Mandibles snapping, the demon gained its feet and threw itself at her. It had lost its sword, but it had sharp claws on its three remaining hands. She thrust her legs up before her, kicking out. Her kimono tore beneath her smock. Her silk sandals, soles covered in tar, struck its carapace. It swiped a clawed hand, striking her, leaving a throbbing cut to her calf.
“Lama!” her husband shouted.
He appeared over her and swung his Songblade. He sliced off the demon’s triangular head. It fell around her feet, mandibles twitching. She caught a glimpse of Yelaikav’s face, full of passion. Brackish blood smeared across his cheeks and nose, his eyes hard, burning bright.
They were not dead yet. They would survive.
The demon seized his sword arm. Mandibles crushed. He screamed as iron plates warped, bent. A resinsword struck his chest, shaking his lamellar armor. Then another blow landed on the same spot, seeking to break through the steel protection. He struggled to twist his arm free as he growled, battling now with agony.
He switched which hand held his blade. The demon jerked hard. Yelaikav roared in pain and rage. Blood spurted from gaps in his armor. Lamahavi watched in horror as he stabbed his blade into the demon’s thorax. The light sizzled inside of it. The demon spasmed and jerked its head hard to the side.
Her husband’s arm ripped off above the elbow. The sharp mandibles had sheered through steel and bone. Blood spurted from the main artery running down his arm, splashing across its black carapace as it fell dying.
“Yelaikav!” she screamed in fright.
The taiko drums beat so loud. Where was their help?
One-armed, Yelaikav leaped over the thrashing demon still clutching his severed limb. He swung his diamond blade into the next. He wasn’t as good with his left hand, but he danced anyways. Lamahavi grabbed her spear, her side bruised, her leg throbbing and bleeding. She struggled to stand, using her weapon as leverage.
Their child kicked as she gained her feet.
Her husband attacked with ferocity. He fought two of the demons now. Light flashed before him. It painted across the demons’ waxy carapaces. Glittered in their fractured eyes. One insectoid head fell free of its spindly neck while the other buried mandibles into the chest plates of his armor. Its sword thrust down, finding a gap in the protection girding his thigh. Blood spurted.
“No!” She lunged forward to stab it and knock it off, but Yelaikav reversed his grip on his sword.
The blade of diamond light slammed into the creature’s back. With a twist, it melted through the waxy carapace and cut out the side. The demon spasmed, still squeezing his chest. He groaned, his armor plates driving into him.
He staggered and then collapsed. She dropped her spear and caught him. His weight, combined with his armor, was too much and she staggered, driven to her knees. She ended up with his head on her lap, staring up at her. The arterial spray slowed. More blood poured out of the rents in his side. The mandible had pierced through the bands of steel and into his abdomen, ripping into his organs.
Tears fell from her eyes and rained on his face.
“Tears flowing down cheeks,” he croaked, reciting the first poem he’d ever written for her, “banished by a simple act, smiling to spite grief.”
She saw it in his eyes. He knew he was dying. Armor jangled. Shouts roared. Reinforcements surged to stem the breach. Too late to save her husband. So much of his blood had already spilled from him. Even as the tears fell down her cheeks, she forced herself to smile for Yelaikav, Songblade Knight.
Husband and father.
“There it is,” he said. “Here . . . take . . .” His left hand, still holding his Songblade, reached for her. She took the bone handle from him. The tuning fork had stopped humming, jostled by his fall. She clutched it while her cheeks ached from holding the smile. “If it’s . . . a son . . .”
“He’ll have your blade, Yelaikav,” she said, her shoulders shaking. Her left hand stroked his face.
His left hand cupped hers. His thumb caressed the edge of her lip curled in a smile. “Sorry.”
“For what?” The grief begged to explode out of her. Holding the smile hurt. He slipped nearer and nearer to death. It wasn’t the end, she knew that, but it meant she’d live a long life without him. She had decades ahead of her before she passed on and would be reunited with him. She always knew her husband might one day give everything to protect the world. She just hoped he’d be lucky to grow old with her.
Foolish, maybe, but it was the only way she’d been able to endure being a soldier’s wife.
No, hope died with him.
“Why are you sorry, Yelaikav? You fought bravely. I’m so proud of you.”
“Won’t be there . . . for our . . . child.”
“She or he will know about you.” Her throat burned as much as her cheeks. Selfish fear rippled through her.
“Name our child with . . . Diamond and Orchid. Mix . . . me and you . . . Best parts of us.”
“I will.” She turned her head and kissed his palm. “I love you, Yelaikav.”
“My beautiful orchid. Blossom bright for our child.”
“Watch us from the Diamond Heaven,” she whispered, fighting to hold the smile for him.
“Love . . . you . . .”
He let out his final exhalation. His hand fell limp from her face.
The grief exploded out of her. She bent over, her pregnant belly pressed to his head. She screamed out the rage and pain, hating the demons for ravaging her world, and the folly of their ancestors for Shattering Reality to begin with. A good man had spilled his heart’s blood to hold the darkness at bay one breath longer. For one more generation to live.
For their child to grow up.
Her tears fell on his face as she rocked back and forth. She hugged him to her lap, consumed by the hole gouged into her heart. Diamond tears splashed across his unmoving features. They rolled over his bold nose. The scar on his cheek. The lips growing blue in death. His body cooled to her touch. His spirit departed, leaving her.
When she’d married Yelaikav, she’d known this day could come, but she wasn’t ready to face it. Not prepared at all for the pain. She cried over his body until they took her away, a stumbling corpse herself, dead inside as she clutched the bone handle of his Songblade.
Then she felt her child move inside her womb. Yelaikav had fought hard to keep both her and their child alive. The tragic purpose of life: the old die so the young may flourish. Generation after generation after generation.
Why did it have to be so soon? she thought as she stumbled in the supporting hands of the faceless women around her.
Wives of soldiers who dreaded the same doom blossoming in their own lives.
Alone in her house, kneeling on the bed she’d shared with her husband, she held the sword to her belly and thought of the name for their baby. Diamond, layika, and Orchid, mahavu. A character from both her name and Yelaikav’s.
“If you’re a daughter . . . Layikavu. If you’re a son . . . Mahaikan,” she whispered. “You’ll be beautiful and strong.” She glanced up at the ceiling. Her tears were gone. She hoped Yelaikav could see her because . . .
She smiled. She would be strong for their child. It was a choice. She would grieve—how she would grieve—but Yelaikav’s child needed a mother to tell stories of him.
She found her journal. She had to record the last poem he’d ever told her with all the others. She would cherish every one of them. One day, their child would read them and know the beauty of Yelaikav’s heart.
She drew the first character with a graceful stroke of brush, painting black on stark white.
To be concluded…