The Soldier’s Wife 3: The Beauty of Life
The Third Day of Autumn, the Three Thousand and Forty-Ninth Year of the Kingdom
Lamahavi always enjoyed her turn to watch the young boys at play. Today felt extra special.
She couldn’t stop smiling as she sat at the edge of the small courtyard full of sand where the young boys play-fought. It wasn’t serious training, but wild and unorganized. None were more than seven summers, when they would begin receiving more disciplined lessons in sword and spearplay. Now, they clacked their toy weapons together as they laughed and shouted and ran. They wore their yukatas of brown or dark blues or grays, the hems worn shorter than a girl’s, leaving their legs mostly bare as they darted to and fro.
A chaos of shouts and flying sand and laughter echoed. She smiled as she tried to watch them all.
The dangers of living in the Ringed City never felt so far away as when she watched the children play. Her season here had taught her to treasure any moments of peace she found. To live in the moment. Death fell with a swiftness here. Since she’d arrived, five Songblade Knights had died.
It was a bad summer when a class graduating from the Academy of the Shining Blade never produced more than fifteen. This year had only nine, including her husband.
The Songblade Knights couldn’t lower their standards in their fight against the demons. They held back the vile monsters who managed to breach the Diamond Ward that always glittered above her head, a distorting geometry thrusting into the blue autumn sky.
Lamahavi didn’t know why she enjoyed watching the young boys play more than the girls. Maybe she saw her husband in them. He had a mischievous nature, his inner child not destroyed by the weight of responsibility nor the fighting he’d already endured serving the world.
Her Yelaikav was once like these boys, trading blows with sticks, kicking up sand with his sandaled feet, laughing with other children. The girls had their own play with dolls and playing house and creating elaborate history for their toys. Those could be fun to participate in, but Lamahavi could just sit down for hours watching the boys’ exuberance race from one end to the other.
The loud crack of wood snapped her attention to one group. A boy, Vipaloza’s son, fell to the ground. He clutched his hand to his chest, his small body trembling. The other boys, all looking six and possessing a year or more of growth on the lad, laughed at him.
“Going to cry, Lozehazi?” one taunted. “Just cracked your knuckles.”
The young boy on the ground shook his head with defiance even as the tears formed. Lamahavi could see them growing big in the child’s eyes. She rose and smoothed down the tight skirt of the flowery yukata she wore. Autumn had begun, but the days were still warm enough to wear lighter robes. Her sandaled feet whisked across the sand.
Some of the boys groaned. “See, you got a woman involved,” sneered the eldest. He kicked sand at Lozehazi. “You’re too weak to be a true knight’s son.”
“Hey!” she barked at the boy, clapping her hands together. She’d also learned not to show a hint of fear before the children. They could be as vicious as a pack of wild hounds sniffing after an unattended baby. “What sort of knight kicks sand at his brother instead of offering him a hand to stand?”
“He’s not my brother!” declared the eldest boy, Yemonu. He was the son of a knight in a different squad from Yelaikav’s. “He’s a sniveling baby. Look at him; he’s crying. It was just a little rap on the knuckles.”
Lamahavi arched her eyebrows at him. She stood over the boy, looming with the height her Easterner blood gave her. She had her brown hair pinned in a mass of braided curls held in place by her favorite hair comb given to her as a wedding gift by Yelaikav. Her deep-lavender eyes lanced down at Yemonu.
“I asked you a question, boy,” she said, her tone cold.
He shifted in his place, feet worrying a depression into the ground. The other boys with him were slowly backing away to melt off amid the others.
“A knight wouldn’t do that, Madam Lamahavi,” he muttered, not meeting her eyes. “It’s just . . . he’s so small and weak.”
“So you’re a bully?” She didn’t hide her disgust. “What an honorable knight you’ll make. I am sure your father will be proud of a son that hurts those weaker than him instead of standing steadfast in their defense.”
The boy’s brown cheeks darkened. He trembled.
“Are you a bully, Yemonu?” she asked.
“No, Madam Lamahavi.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
He thrust out his hand at Lozehazi and helped the younger boy to stand. Tears had formed tracks down dusty cheeks. The boy looked down, still rubbing at his injured hand. The older boy muttered an apology and then raced off.
“I am weak,” mumbled Lozehazi.
She sighed and sank down to look at him at eye level. She put on the most motherly smile she had, one she hadn’t much practice giving. She was young, only married since early summer. She produced a silk handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed the end against her tongue before she began wiping at his face.
“Why do you think you’re weak?” she asked him with patience. The boys were shouting around her, back to playing.
“I’m so small,” he muttered. “I’m not as strong as the others.”
“He’s big for his age,” said Lamahavi. “And there’s no shame in being small.”
“I can’t be a knight if I’m small.”
She paused. “You have plenty of time to grow up. And even if you can’t be a knight, there are other ways to serve. I’m not a knight. Don’t I do important things?”
“You’re a woman.”
Her brow furrowed. She cupped his chin and lifted his gaze. “I am a person. Every one of us can be of service. The shame isn’t in being unable to do a role, it is in not doing what you can with what you’ve been gifted. We’re all equals. The farmer is as important as your father.”
“No, he’s not,” the boy said. “My father’s a Songblade Knight. He keeps the bad demons from killing us all.”
“And if he didn’t eat?” She gave him a serious look. “How much play can you enjoy when you haven’t eaten?”
“That’s what I thought. So just because you’re small doe—”
The taiko drum pounded.
Lamahavi straightened as the deep boom of the drum exploded through the neighborhood. Her gaze snapped to the rising Bulwark, the dark-stone defenses that ringed the Diamond Ward and held back the gaping wound in Reality through which the demons bled. Her eyes studied the geometry of the Ward, Black Blood Rift a dark smear beyond the adamant force.
A breach, pounded through her mind with the same blazing beat of the drum. A breach. A breach.
The demons had come.
Lozehazi threw himself into her legs, hugging his face into her hip as he whimpered. She knew that fear well, but she couldn’t let it swallow her. She made the choice every time she heard the drums to act.
“Boys! Boys!” she shouted. “Come on! All on me! You know what to do!”
Scared faces rushed towards her. Even Yemonu had lost all his bravado, his face paling as he rushed to her side. She gently pried Lozehazi off of her and took his hand. He gripped with fear. The drums meant death came. Any of their fathers might be the one to die. And if it was a bad breach, where the wives had to join the fighting, orphans could be made.
“Come along, just like we practice,” she said, keeping her voice calm. With Lozehazi’s hand gripping hers and the other boys swarming around her, it was easier to hold back the terror wanting to surge through her body. “The shelter’s this way.”
Life in the Ringed City was unlike any in the world. The only city where the fortifications pointed inward, where no man worked his craft without a weapon at hand, where women watched children with a crossbow in reach. She fetched hers left at her seat and quickly belted on her quiver with its bolts. As she did, Lozehazi gripped her yukata’s skirt.
“Stay together!” she kept saying as the taiko drums changed their beat. Three beats, a pause, two beats, a pause, then repeated. It signaled the breach’s location. It was Blossoming Lilac Octant, on the far side of the city from their own, Apple Blossom Octant. “Hold hands. Protect each other. Especially you older boys. That’s your job. Right now, you’re knights.”
She led them from the play area to the nearest shelter. Civilian workers—the blacksmiths, stonecutters, butchers, weavers, armorers, and the myriad of other craftsmen needed to support a city—were flowing towards them with their own families, holding spears or swords or their own crossbows. Wives of knights, like Lamahavi, had their own jobs to perform during a breach.
Normally, she manned the infirmary, but this day she had responsibility for the boys. She wouldn’t leave their side, no matter what. Her heart tightened as she heard the clatter of armor, the sound of knights rushing up the stairs to the Bulwark to flood into the breach and drive back the demons.
Thoughts of her husband filled her mind as she flowed down the stairs into the shelter. Dug into the earth and surrounded by heavy stone walls, it had doors made of thick iron. Designed to be closed and barred from the inside, they could sustain the occupants for a week before food ran out. Water came from a cistern that could keep them supplied for weeks longer.
It was dark inside. A few diamonds glowed, lit by tuning forks humming at the right frequency by them. Their song was lost to the shouts echoing through the chamber. The civilians knew where to go better than Lamahavi. The pallets seemed all claimed. Even the boys knew better than her, leading her to their area near the front. Another wife shepherded a group of girls to the other side.
“Is everyone here?” she asked, staring at the frightful boys clustered around her. She counted, relieved to find none missing. They all sank down onto the pallets, whispering to each other.
Lamahavi settled down onto a bench along the wall and found Lozehazi before her. His face was a mask of fright. She gave him a reassuring smile, her stomach roiling with fear now. She had nothing more to do. She had brought her charges to safety. She didn’t have an infirmary to ready. To gaze out at the Bulwark and maybe witness the fighting and see how it was going.
She could only wait.
The large doors creaked closed. Boomed shut.
Lozehazi whimpered and threw herself onto her lap. She grunted in surprise and set her crossbow down on the bench. He shifted to get comfortable. It was near dark where they were, the diamond lights distant. She could hardly see his face, just an outline.
Her arms went around him and she found herself humming. Feeling the boy on her lap sparked something deep inside her, this maternal flame. She pressed her face into his hair, feeling the soft texture of it.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said after a moment. “It’s alright to be scared. I’m scared, too.”
“You are?” the child asked.
“Everyone is,” she said, remembering words her husband spoke to her. “Being brave is something you can only do when you’re scared. When you feel that cold, clammy terror squeezing at your guts. Being brave is when you decide you won’t let the dread control you. That you’ll be strong and stand up.”
“I’m not strong,” he whispered.
“I’m not talking physical strength. There’s a different kind. It’s inside of your heart. It doesn’t matter how big and brawny you are or how much you can carry. It’s the strength that only shows up when you’re afraid. When things are difficult. It’s the strength that lets your parents be brave out there. It’s inside of all of us if we only believe.”
“How can someone small like me be strong?”
“When I was a child, I loved the story of the three brother horses. Do you know that one?”
“No,” he said.
“Maybe it’s an Easterner tale.” Lamahavi thought back to her father and sitting on his lap. “Once upon a time, there were three brother horses. One was strong and mighty. He could pull a plow all day long and not get tired. Just prancing up and down the field, drawing the iron through the earth and tilling it so his owners could plant good grain in and grow fine fields of wheat.
“The second brother horse was lean and swift. He could race across the plains faster than the wind, his magnificent mane and silky tail flowing behind him. He delivered the most urgent of messages. The sound of his drumming hooves could be heard far and wide.
“The third brother horse was a pony. He wasn’t big and strong nor was swift and fast. The best he could do was pull a little cart to the village market, loaded down with a few bushels of grain. Not the large wagons of his first brother or the heavy plow he could pull. He tried hard to pull more, but he was too small. He tried to run as fast as the second brother horse, but his legs were too short. He wanted to be just as good as they were, but he couldn’t.
“But did he give up? Did he decide he was useless and couldn’t help out the family who owned them? No. He pulled his little cart to the marketplace. While his brothers were busy plowing fields and delivering messages, he could take a few bushels of grain to be sold and make the family money. He was proud of that.”
“This is a boring story,” Lozehazi said.
“It’s about to get exciting. You see, demons came upon the farm and word had to be given out to the nearest castle to alert them before they were caught by surprise.” She hugged the boy. “In those days, the White Goddess hadn’t created the Diamond Ward, so the demons were roaming everywhere, killing and hurting and trying to destroy us. They spread their foul resin wherever they went, building hives and trying to cover the world in their vomited black.
“The three brother horses all vowed to go and deliver the warning. ‘I am the strongest,’ declared the first brother horse, ‘I shall gallop day and night and deliver word to the castle so the soldiers can be ready to fight and kill the invaders.’
“‘And I’m the fastest,’ declared the second brother horse, ‘and I shall race the wind itself and outrun those demons. I shall reach the castle and bring word before the demons can fall upon them unaware and slay those brave soldiers.’
“Now the third brother horse still wanted to help. ‘I too shall go,’ he declared, ‘and bring word to the castle. I can trot at a steady pace. Pulling my little cart has given me endurance. I shall not fail. I will bring word and make sure that the soldiers are warned.’
“The first and second brother horses laughed at him. ‘You will collapse with exhaustion before the day is done,’ said the first brother horse. ‘Then the demons will cut you down while you lie on the ground panting.’ The second brother horse declared, ‘You shall fall so far behind me that the demons will catch up to you and cut off your back legs. You’ll fall to the ground and they will butcher you. Just hide with the family and survive.’”
“They’re right,” interrupted Lozehazi. “They’re bigger and faster than him. He should just hide. That’s what we’re doing.”
“We are hiding, but the soldiers have been warned and are fighting. Now, in the story, certainly the first brother horse could pull more weight than the pony and the second brother horse could run faster, but was that enough? The journey to the castle was long and far. The straightest path cut across rough terrain. Anything could happen. The three brother horses all set out together. The second brother horse, as swift as he boasted, raced ahead of his siblings. Before they had gotten halfway across the first valley, he was already over the hill and out of sight. The first brother kept up his steady gallop with the pony at his side. The two ran as fast as they could.”
“So the second brother horse will reach the castle long before them. Why did his brothers even bother going?” The boy squirmed on her lap. “Why not tell a story about fighting?”
“The first brother horse was too stubborn to back down. He was the oldest. The strongest. He should have the honor delivering the warning. He ran as fast as he could, and the littlest brother just managed to keep up. They ran and ran all day long. But pulling a plow all day, while it had given him strength, had also made the first brother big. Too big to keep up that pace. Halfway through the second day, his heart gave out and he collapsed on the ground, thrashing as he died.”
“No!” the boy gasped. “But he was so strong.”
“Being big is sometimes a hindrance,” said Lamahavi. “Sometimes it’s a strength. But in that race, he had to carry all that extra weight. That sapped his endurance faster than it did the little pony. ‘Go on and sound the alarm,’ the first brother horse said to the pony as he lay dying. ‘Let the guards know.’ ‘I shall,’ whinnied the third brother horse. The littlest kept galloping, his eyes thick with tears because he couldn’t stop to help his brother. Warning the soldiers was more important.”
The boy nodded. She felt his breathless excitement. “But what about the second brother horse? He left first. Did his size get him in trouble?”
“Not on the plains. His swiftness was an advantage, but then came the woods. They were thick and tangled. Not even the wind could howl through them. The air was dead inside. The second brother horse had to pick his way through them, growing more and more agitated with every step. He knew the demons rushed tirelessly behind him. But he couldn’t go forward at more than a crawl. All the time he’d gained was lost.
“At the dawn after the first brother horse died, the third brother horse arrived at the woods. The little pony slipped beneath the branches with ease. He trotted around the trees, keeping his head low. He had to move fast. He could hear the demons coming behind him. They were getting closer and closer. They were chittering and clicking and making all those horrible sounds.”
Lamahavi’s memory burst with her close encounter with a demon on her journey to the Ringed City. The alien monster had almost killed her with its resinsword. It resembled a giant ant taller than her, mandibles sharp and ready to rip into her flesh.
“Soon, the third brother horse’s small form slipped through the forest and found the second brother horse trapped. His great mane lay tangled in the bark of a gnarled pine tree. His tail had been caught in prickling brambles. Spiny brush wrapped about his forelocks, pinning him in place. ‘I’m trapped, little brother,’ the proud horse whinnied. ‘I ran fast and true with all my heart, but I couldn’t slip through the woods unscathed. Ride. Sound the alarm. Do not let the demons devour us.’”
Lozehazi quivered on her lap. He whimpered, his eyes wide as he stared up at Lamahavi. The glowing diamonds twinkled like stars in his liquid depths.
“So the third brother horse trotted on. The sounds of the demons hacking and slashing and ripping through the woods grew louder and louder. The terrible moment came when second brother horse whinnied his defiance and fought to kick the beastly monsters and crush their carapaces. Then he went silent and the third brother horse knew he was alone. That it was all on him. Not the strongest. Not the fastest. But just the right pony to make it because he never lost faith. He never let himself be useless. He’d pulled his little cart and gained just enough endurance to burst out of the woods at a gallop.”
Lozehazi caught his breath.
“He ran and ran. He could see the castle ahead. The place where the brave soldiers could face the demons, but only if they were alerted. His hooves drummed across the road. The demons chittered behind him. They knew he was going for the alarm, and they hated him. In their alien souls dwelt only black rage. They want to pollute our world. To destroy all that is bright and beautiful about it.
“The third brother horse wouldn’t let them.”
The boy let out an explosive breath and gasped, “Yes, yes, he’ll make it! He’s fast enough! Strong enough!”
She smiled at his enthusiasm. Outside, his father and her husband fought those same demons to keep them from devouring the world. The other boys were crowding around her, drawn by the sound of her voice. In here, she waged her own little war against despair. Against the panic that could fill the soul and drown it.
“The third brother horse ran and ran, his little hooves drumming. He whinnied as loud as he could, ‘The demons are coming! The demons are coming!’ Behind him, the demons chittered their rage at his neighing. Their clawed feet carried them ever closer, for he was growing tired. He’d run so very far, but he couldn’t stop now. The castle was so close. ‘The demons are coming!’ he shouted with every last breath he had.
“The demon’s sword stabbed into his side.”
“NO!” all the little boys, including the one in her lap, gasped.
“He whinnied in pain, and it was his loudest shout yet. He wouldn’t let the demons win. He would let the soldiers know so they could protect all the farmers and craftsmen, the wives and weavers, fathers and seamstresses. He neighed even as the blood filled his lungs. The third brother horse’s alarm reached the castle. The soldiers heard.
“As the third brother horse fell to the ground, twitching and dying, he saw the soldiers on the ramparts. The horn blew, sounding the warning. The Songblade Knights were gathering for their charge to rout the demons. The foul aliens would not fall on the castle unaware. The third brother horse had foiled their twisted plans. They gnashed their foul mandibles in despair and broke their resinswords in grief as the gallant Songblade Knights charged out.
“He wasn’t forgotten, the third brother horse. After the demons were slain, the knights carried his body all the way to the City of the Embalmed Dead. They laid him to rest with all their brother knights who’d died battling demons. With the wives who took up spears to fight at their warrior-husbands’ sides to hold back the umbral tide pouring out of Black Blood Rift.”
Lamahavi stared into the young boy’s eyes, wide and wet, sad for the third brother horse. She brushed away his tears. “So you see, no matter how small you might be, you’re never helpless. There is always something you can do. And that’s an important thing, Lozehazi, because one day, you’ll be bigger. Year by year, you’ll grow, and there will be little boys who will look up to you. One might even be my son.”
“Your son, Madam Lamahavi?” he asked.
“Do you want to know a secret?” she asked.
“There’s a little baby growing inside of me. A handsome son or a beautiful daughter. And one day, they’re going to need someone strong to watch out for them. Do you have that strength, Lozehazi? Is it in your heart?”
“It is,” he said with such bold assuredness. “I’ll be strong. For them. I will.”
“I know you will,” she said. “That’s the beauty of life. We are all strong in our own ways, we just have to find it inside of us. It’s like a little coal, so faint we don’t know it’s there until we fan it to life. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re weak. Because you’re not.” She tapped his chest over his heart. “Not in here, where it matters.”
His smile dazzled her, ignited this warm ache inside of her. As he slid off her lap, her hand rested on her belly. She’d missed two of her moon flows. A mix of her and Yelaikav. As the boys started playing the three brother horses in the dark of the shelter, the fear for her husband met the strength inside of her.
What grew in her womb, that tiny spark of hope, was what they all fought for. So that the beauty of life could continue. So the darkness couldn’t smother it. She waited for the fighting to end, to find out if her husband lived, while watching the next generation romp and play.
No matter the outcome, mankind endured.
To be continued…
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