The Soldier’s Wife 1: Foundation of Courage
The Twenty-Third Day of Spring, the Three Thousand and Forty-Ninth Year of the Kingdom
“Halfway there,” Lamahavi’s new husband said. He nodded to his right at the passing terrain. “The Mid-Hive.”
A shiver ran through Lamahavi. The young woman held tight to the light yukata, a thin robe of cotton, she wore. The light-blue cloth was decorated in a pattern of soaring cranes and white orchids, her namesake. Her delicate face rippled with distaste at the first sight of the demonic hive. She’d grown up all her life knowing about the dark beings who constantly sought to invade her world. The Forbidden Kingdom had guarded the human race for three thousand and forty-nine years.
Their watch had never failed.
Their guard had never wavered.
They were the shields of the world, chosen by the Goddess Layiv herself to defend against the Black Blood Rift that lay in the heart of the rolling plain they crossed. The Rift was a permanent scar left over from the Shattering. The one place where the Tonal Barriers could not be healed by the Diamond Lady. Layiv’s one failure.
The Mid-Hive was an eruption of black rocks forming winding tubes and spires. They had a bulbous and knobbly texture, not unlike termite mounds. No termite mound towered higher than any building constructed in the Forbidden Kingdoms.
Grass grew around the hive’s base and the weather had worn down its irregular surface. They rode over a battlefield. For twenty-one days, the Songblade Knights, supported by regular infantry and the famed Rangers, fought to contain the breach.
Three thousand had died stopping the demons.
Mid-Hive wasn’t the farthest the demons had ever tunneled, but it was the largest eruption. It lay halfway between the great city Fortress and the Black Blood Rift itself. To face the invaders, a guard had been created. Men like her husband trained to stand the watch armed with a Songblade.
Pride surged through her at his accomplishment. She recrossed her legs, covered in baggy wool pants called hakama, and glanced away from the hive. Her lavender eyes desired to focus on Yelaikav instead. He held the reins of their carriage in an easy grip, their water buffalo plodding along at a steady pace that devoured the leagues they had to travel. Their belongings filled the back of the covered wagon. The furniture their family and friends had gifted as well as wedding presents, clothing, stores of food for the garrison, and more.
A smile spread on her husband’s face. They had only married a moon’s turning ago, uniting after his anointing. He was young, like her, approaching his twenty-first summer. He had the hairless cheeks that characterized a Westerner, his skin the same yellow-brown as her own. His brown hair was cut short along the back and side while the top was shaved to expose his smooth crown. There the character for protection, a diamond surrounded by a wall on all four sides, had been tattooed in black ink. The mark of a Songblade as much as the hilt he wore tucked into the belt of his yukata. His robe was cut in the men’s fashion, worn loose. The light brown cloth, bearing no design, hung open to reveal his hairless chest. Westerners weren’t as hirsute as Easterners or Northerners.
He had the same height as her. Though she was from the east, she was tall for a woman. She wore her brown hair in a complex coil of loops piled up to her crown and held in place by her wedding gift from her husband: an alabaster hair comb shaped with a turtle holding an orchid in his mouth.
She treasured it more than any other possession she owned.
“Is there something on my face?” Yelaikav asked. He glanced at her, his eyes a deeper shade of purple from her own.
“What?” she asked, cocking her head.
“You are studying my face like I have dirt on it.” He rubbed his cheek into the shoulder of his yukata. “Did I get it?”
“There’s no dirt on your face,” she said, relaxing as the ruined hive slid past them.
“Ah, so it’s just the masculine perfection of my face that you are drinking in.” He puffed out his chest. “I know, it is the visage that inflames your womanly passions.”
His playful tone helped to ease the talons of fear clutching at her heart.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Lamahavi said. “Just take me right here.”
Interest gleamed across his eyes. “Really?” He glanced behind them. Three other wagons trailed behind theirs, the newest knights heading to the Black Blood Rift. “I wouldn’t want to make the other wives jealous of my prowess.”
“Oh, and I thought you didn’t want to embarrass yourself before your fellow knights,” she said, a saucy heat rippling through her. She rubbed her shoulder against his. Of the two men she’d had in her life, Yelaikav proved the more satisfying lover. “I’ve heard rumors of Asozyem.”
“Is that why Jiabevu always has a big grin in the morning?” he asked without pause.
She gave a wicked giggle. He had a talent for saying the right thing to lift her mood. He’d rescued her from the grief when she’d broken off her first engagement with Vevoztaj. That day, Yelaikav had produced a handkerchief and his smile.
“Some women look radiant when they cry, but you’re the type of woman who shines when smiling,” he’d said that day when she’d taken the handkerchief from him.
It had shocked her. “Are you saying I look ugly?”
“Undignified.” His eyes had danced with good humor. “But the choice is yours.”
“Not to cry?”
“No, whether you can smile.” His lips had spread wide. “It always makes me feel better no matter how sad I am. Jimuja once wrote:
Tears flowing down cheeks
banished by a simple act
smiling to spite grief
“I never heard that poem of hers.”
“I lied,” he’d said, winking at her. “I wrote it myself. But I think it captures a simple truth. Happiness is a choice. It can be a struggle to embrace it. Sometimes, we need those in our lives to inspire us to release our radiance.”
So she’d forced herself to smile. It had helped. The pain in her heart didn’t fade for weeks, but it lessened. After, Lamahavi had noticed him more and more around the Academy of the Shining Blade. When she’d returned his handkerchief a few days later, he’d asked her to walk through the garden beneath the moons. The plum trees had been in blossom, the air crisp with frost.
She hadn’t needed to force a smile that night.
She took Yelaikav’s right hand. He held the water buffaloes’ reins in a loose grip in his left while she played with his fingers. He had callouses from practicing with swords and spears and bows.
He glanced at her and recited:
When wife is pleased
blissful peace is known to man
harmony sings joy
“Mmm, I like that one,” she said. Yelaikav wasn’t a great poet, but his words were always precious to her. She’d recorded them in a journal, carefully drawing the characters with a flowing brush made from her own hair. I’ll paint this one on a scroll and hang it over our door.
He squeezed her hand as they trundled across the Forbidden Plains.
They traveled closer and closer to the Black Blood Rift. An hour past the Mid-Hive, dust gleamed on the horizon. A patrol of the Rangers, the elite cavalry of the Forbidden Kingdom, passed them. They were the finest horsemen in the world. Many women who chaffed at the role of wife and mother found success amid their illustrious ranks. A woman’s lighter form allowed her horse greater range. They kept watch for any tunnels and breaches, so were often the first line of defense against any demons who’d escaped the Rift.
If they failed, the Hundred Forts ringing the Forbidden Plains would stop any demonic incursions.
The group stopped for lunch with the sun high overhead. She joined the other four wives in preparing the simple meals of bread and meat. Every knight sought a wife. The Diamond-Born Emperor and his Warlord believed a soldier fought best with the knowledge that his family would perish if he failed. She was both her husband’s inspiration as well as his succor from the trials of his duty.
A plum tree to give restful shade.
To Lamahavi, there was no shame in this. It didn’t make her lesser. It took a different sort of strength to be a soldier’s wife. To endure the fear without breaking. To face the same risks without flinching. Wives were as revered as their husbands. Stories abounded of their feats. Many had statues erected in their honor.
And she wasn’t helpless. There was one final defense of the Black Blood Rift. If their men fell, the wives would lay down their lives. They would fight with spear and crossbow. In her own way, she was as much a soldier as her husband.
She brewed a tea mixed with soothing chamomile while the other wives carved bread and cut slices from hunks of salted beef. The women chatted and laughed while the men patrolled the edges, looking dangerous.
Yelaikav’s swagger brought a smile to her lips.
“Look at you and those hot eyes,” said Jiabevu as she cut the shank of beef, producing thick slices with plenty of succulent fat on the edges. “We heard you and your husband last night.”
“Kavi,” moaned Saipoz in imitation of Lamahavi, her eyes bright. She was a Northerner with her silver hair styled in a dozen braids wrapped in blue ribbons. She had them drawn up to the crown of her head and pinned together by a hair comb of alabaster shaped like a wading heron. “Oh, Kavi!”
The three women around Lamahavi burst into laughter, Bioku covering her mouth as she giggled.
“My husband is quite proud of his sword,” said Lamahavi without missing a beat as she measured out the tea leaves for their drinks. The hum of the tuning fork powering the ruby in the kettle was hardly noticeable. “What wife wouldn’t want to shower him in praise?”
Saipoz laughed louder, her youthful face bursting with delight. She glanced at their men circling in their solemn pose. “They do perform better when you don’t laugh, eh, Bioku?”
“It was crooked,” Bioku said. “I didn’t think they were supposed to be. I felt so bad when he wilted.”
“Still, he was a true knight and soldiered on despite your mocking sally,” Saipoz said, nudging Bioku. “I see him strutting now.”
Bioku smiled as she resumed cutting the bread on a board balanced over her knees.
Lamahavi enjoyed talking with the three others. They had all trained together at the Academy. These women would be her support when their men stood watch of the Diamond Ward, the barrier of light constraining Black Blood Rift from poisoning the whole world.
They were good women. The instructors at the Academy were skilled at winnowing out the chaff from the useful grain. Those women who they thought had the strength to be a soldier’s wife were encouraged to stay while those who weren’t were tormented.
Sometimes, the tormented persevered, proving they had the inner strength after all.
Lamahavi hoped she did. Saipoz certainly had the mettle to be a soldier’s wife. Behind her playful laughter lurked a woman as hard as a widowed matron with steel for hair.
After their meal, they were on the move again. She dozed on the driver bench, leaning back against a crate of clothing, warm from the tea and full from the food. She let herself drift, rocked by the wagon following the only road across the Forbidden Plains.
A water buffalo bayed.
A skittering sound like sand tumbling down a hill.
A curse from Yelaikav. Vile. Terrible. “Layiv’s cunt!”
“Yelaikav!” she gasped in shock, her eyes snapping open.
Yelaikav hauled on the reins to stop them and shouted, “Demons!”
The sound of skittering sand increased. To her right, the grass covering the hill bowed outward. Something wiggled beneath the soil. Something large. A slimy sensation, like falling into a pile of rotting blossoms, drenched her skin. Bursting out of the sod reared a black, insect-like head. Sharp mandibles, caked with dirt, snapped. More soil spilled off spindly arms as they reached out of the hole and grasped the ground. Bristling hairs jutted from the chitinous limbs.
The demon hauled itself out of the earth.
She wanted to scream. Nothing could escape the fear strangling her throat.
Shouts roared behind her as she stared at a demon. Not an image painted in watercolors. Not a statue carved of marble or cast in bronze. This was no design stitched on a tapestry.
The black-shelled invader from another Reality moved.
It stood a head taller than her father, its body segmented like a bug. Its triangular head, adorned with multi-faceted eyes gleaming like foul obsidian, was perched atop a spindly neck. Antennae twitched above, ending in feathery fronds. Its thorax was wide, three pairs of limbs thrusting from it. A narrow tube connected to its swollen abdomen. Its rear brimmed with a foul venom it could deliver with a massive barbed stinger. It stood on the largest of its six limbs, three claw-like toes thrusting from the armored legs. The upper limbs were short, ending in finger-like appendages that could bend in all directions. Its middle limbs held its weapons. Swords formed of resin, the same substance from which they fashioned their hives. They regurgitated it and shaped it before it hardened.
A second burst out of the hole, its resinsword possessing a deadly curve. The third scrambled free of the hole in a heartbeat. It held two shorter blades. All three demons’ antennae twitched in her direction. She felt their compound eyes focusing on her with alien regard.
She struggled to say her husband’s name.
He rose on the wagon, the wind rippling around him. He looked so calm. “Lama,” he said, his voice rising over the shouts behind them, “surrendering to fear is a choice, too. I can feel it clawing at me.”
“What?” she croaked, shocked to hear him admit it.
“That’s what they tell us. It’s a choice to be scared just as it’s a choice to be brave. To fight on despite the horror in your bowels. I need you to make the choice. Fear or bravery.”
“I-I-I,” she sobbed. She shrank into the wooden back of the bench as the three demons scuttled down the hill towards them.
“They’re scouts!” snarled Yelaikav. “We have to kill them now before they can report to the hive that they made a successful breach. There are eight of us here.”
Eight? He’s counting me and the other wives? Tears stung her eyes.
“Love is the backbone of courage,” he said as he stepped past her. “Love is the foundation of bravery.”
“Love is the bedrock of civilization,” she whispered, finishing the aphorism of the Songblade Knights.
He hopped off and drew the simple handle at his side. It looked like a sword hilt, though wider than most. It was fashioned from the hollow wing bone of an Imperial Condor, the largest bird in the world. As a wedding gift, she’d carved out of jade an orchid sprouting from a diamond; a union of their two names. She’d then inserted it into the hilt.
White Orchid and Diamond Sword.
He smacked the hilt into his hip and revealed why it was hollow. The tuning fork inserted in the hollow handle sang. A single note. A heartbeat later, the diamond capping the handle erupted into a blade of pure white.
Down their small convoy, the three other Songblade Knights activated their own Blades. Purple and Green and Red swords sprang into existence, each matched to their owner’s temperament. Only a few condors could be harvested a year; their species wasn’t fecund. Thus, only a few blades were manufactured.
Only the best could be trained in their use. They had almost no weight. They could slice through flesh and bone. Even steel. Fighting with one was unlike any other blade. The knight had to maintain the tuning fork’s resonance. The exact Tone activated the gem.
Yelaikav faced the demons rushing down the hill, his blade raised in a guard position. The three monsters split apart, rushing at the knights. The one with the curved blade came for Yelaikav. It chittered.
She sat on the bench, helpless. You’re a soldier’s wife. What are you doing?
It’s a choice.
Love is the foundation of bravery.
Training drilled into her during the last year surged through her. She turned around and lifted the canvas flap, exposing their packed belongings. Against a crate leaned a crossbow carved of maple. It was a weapon that took little training to master. It didn’t require the brawny strength of a bow or years of honed reflexes like the sword. She worked the windlass with practice cranks.
Three swift revolutions and the limbs were drawn back.
The demon rushed at her husband. A foul scent of bile filled her nose. They broke Black ichor dripped from its mandibles. The stink of their resin churned her stomach. She snatched up a bolt. It had a special tip, blunt instead of sharp; no crossbow bolt could penetrate a demon’s natural chitin. It served another purpose.
Bolt seated, she raised the weapon and set the butt against her shoulder. She aimed down it, tracking the demon’s movement. It was almost on Yelaikav. Her finger rested on the trigger mechanism, a length of thin steel running down the side of it to the windlass pinned against the haft to form it into a lever.
The demon raised its blade to attack her husband.
The bolt blurred through the air, flashed above Yelaikav, and slammed into the shoulder of the demon. The force of the blunt tip striking against its armored thorax threw off its next attack. Its resinsword slashed wide. His Songblade hummed. He swung hard, taking advantage of the opening.
The demon didn’t let itself get hit. Antennae twitching, it scuttled back on its wide legs. The white-glowing Songblade hissed before the monster. Already, Lamahavi worked the windlass. She had to support Yelaikav. She had done this a hundred times in training.
She’d learned to aim with skill.
To hit her target.
Cranking the crossbow windlass was a normality that reached through the fear choking her. Three swift turns and the triggering mechanism locked in place with a reassuring click. She drew the next bolt as his blade slashed through the air at the demon.
She raised her weapon and waited for her next opening.
Yelaikav moved with skill. A man’s looser yukata gave his legs more room to move. His sandals kicked up dust from the dry grass. The demon’s resinsword slashed down. He parried. Attacked.
There was one substance a Songblade couldn’t slice through. The demon’s regurgitated resin. Whatever foul substance coagulated to form their nests and weapons had toughness beyond anything found in the true world. The alien substance could not be destroyed.
Only eons of erosion could weather them.
The demon moved with speed despite its size. It scurried on its lower legs and swung its sword in a blur. Yelaikav danced with the bug, moving with all the grace she’d witnessed on the training sands. He swept through his forms.
Plum Blossoms Dancing.
Crane Taking Flight.
The strikes merged from one to the other. Some were a flurry of three or four slices, like Badger In His Den. Others were hard slashes, Falcon’s Dive, or even powerful thrusts, Viper’s Poisonous Strike. Each returned to a guard position, a place where he could parry the demon’s counterattack.
She stood up on the wagon bed, taking advantage of the height. She focused on the demon’s triangular head. There was one spot that her crossbow bolts could inflict damage. She sighted on the compound eye, the multifaceted surface reflecting the brilliant light of Yelaikav’s sword.
“Firing!” she screamed, remembering her training.
Yelaikav backpedaled suddenly, his feet a blur as he retreated a few steps and dodged a scything blow. She exhaled, tightened her finger on the trigger, and—
The wagon rocked.
As she fired, the jostle threw her forward and her aim down. The bolt leaped ahead and slammed into the flank of the left water buffalo. The blunted tip at such close range penetrated its thick hide. He bellowed in pain and charged forward, blood bubbling over his coarse hairs. She screamed. The sudden shift of momentum threw her back into the supplies. She crashed into a crate.
“Lama!” Yelaikav screamed.
The wagon jostled and bounced. She shuddered, hearing wood cracking and snapping behind her. She had no idea what had caused the impact. She struggled to right herself in the tight confines of her yukata. Fabric ripped. Her legs suddenly had more freedom.
She pushed herself to her feet and clutched to a crate of clothing for support. She peered over it. Something was in the back of the wagon, thrashing. A snapping mandible appeared over the box and lunged at her head.
She screamed and thrust the butt of her crossbow out before her. The mandible snapped into it. Wood cracked. The body of the crossbow split in half before it was ripped out of her grasp. The demon chittered and thrashed its head.
A feathery antenna brushed her cheek.
The wispy caress felt like the kiss of cobwebs. She screamed in panic and threw herself back. She landed on the driver bench, her back on the rump of the right water buffalo. Muscles flexed beneath her as it snorted in fear. A resinsword slashed through the canvas top of the wagon. It parted the covering. The demon clambered to reach her. It was missing its left sword arm, greenish ichor bubbling down its black, waxy side.
She pushed with her feet against the back of the wagon seat and slid onto the broad back of the side of the water buffalo. It snorted beneath her as it barreled across the plain. The demon slashed down, its sword hacking through the blocking crate. Wood burst. Clothing spilled out around it. It ripped silk kimonos and cotton hakama away. The thing climbed over the wreckage and set a clawed foot on the driver bench.
She scrambled upright and straddled the right water buffalo, riding it backward. She struggled to think. The beast beneath her was yoked and harnessed. She couldn’t unhitch it with swiftness or ease. The ground sped passed them. She didn’t see any hope of escape.
The demon thrust its sword at her.
She threw herself to the side.
The ground rushed up at her. The water buffalo bellowed behind her, impaled by the demon’s blade. She hit the dusty grass. The world spun about her. Her back and arms burst in bruising pain. Strands of wild sorghum whipped at her face. She tumbled to a stop.
The water buffalo stabbed in her stead collapsed in groaning pain. The momentum of the wagon crashed into it. Wood snapped. The back end of the wagon lifted into the air. The other beast squealed in fright while the demon was pitched off. It struck the grass in a blur of segmented limbs. It rolled and came to a kicking stop.
Lamahavi had to move. She couldn’t lie there. A surge of cold exhilaration rushed through her, energizing her flesh. She hardly felt the bruising throb on the back of her left thigh. A trail of dust led back to the main fight. To her husband.
She ran into the brown mist.
The demon skittered behind her. Its chittering assaulted her panicked mind. She didn’t look back. She rushed ahead on her sandals, the leather straps wrapped tight about her sock-clad feet. Her torn yukata didn’t slow her down. Bruised muscles screamed, but fear had driven her beyond notice. She hadn’t run races since she’d been sixteen summers. Her legs remembered. They stretched out before her.
She raced across the plains as fast as she could, her torn yukata flapping about her legs. In her frantic mind, she could see her husband waiting for her. She’d find safety in Yelaikav’s arms. His smile would banish the fear. His laughter would drive away the demon.
The skittering grew louder.
A shadow fell on her. Over the scent of dust, the acrid bite of bile burned her nostrils.
She could almost see her Diamond Sword riding towards her rescue on the back of a water buffalo. She stared ahead at that fevered image, focusing on the fantasy that Yelaikav was hurtling to save her. She embraced the delusion as the final moments of her life approached.
The demon raised its sword.
I wanted to be your plum tree, she thought to the phantasm rushing to her rescue.
Queerly, the fantasized image of her husband raised a crossbow to his shoulder.
A loud twang. A dark streak hurtled through the air and hissed over her head. A loud thud and a chittering screech. A blade slashed behind her, missing her by the width of her fingers spread wide. Footsteps faltered. The demon crashed to the grass.
It was no fantasy. No hallucination brought on by fear. Yelaikav was riding a water buffalo towards her. The beast panted, sweat lathering its dark hide. He leaped from the back of it, his yukata flapping around his waist, and landed before her. He drew his Songblade hilt and slammed it into the meat of his right thigh.
The tone hummed. The blade of white light burst from the hilt. He rushed forward, face twisted in a fierce mask of anger. Blood matted the right side of his face. Dark ichor soaked his left sleeve. He charged past her.
Lamahavi’s steps faltered.
She collapsed to her hands and knees, panting. Sweat dripped off the tip of her nose and ran down her forehead from her disarrayed hair. She glanced back to see Yelaikav falling on the demon as it rose. The Songblade flashed, the cuts too fast for her to follow.
A leg severed in a spurt of dark-green ichor. The demon fell on its side. It slashed its resinsword at Yelaikav’s legs. Yelaikav parried and followed with a powerful flick that swept his sword up the thing’s thorax, splitting it open. The blade carved upward and then slashed through the triangular head.
A bubbling laugh burst from Lamahavi’s throat. A sound verging on mad hysterics as she witnessed the demon’s death. It spasmed on the ground, limbs flailing in mockery of life. Yelaikav pressed the fingers of his left hand into the hollow of his hilt, stilling the tuning fork. The note died.
The light vanished.
“Lama,” he said, his voice soft.
She stared at him as the laughter became tears. The fear metastasized into sobbing exhaustion. Into disbelief and relief and a clinging horror that another of the demons might lurk beneath her.
“They’re dead, Lama.”
“I-I-I got scared,” she sobbed out.
“So did I,” he said, “but you chose!” He seized her shoulders and lifted her into his arms. He held her tight and spun her around. His laughter danced around her. “You chose to be brave and fight! You escaped a demon, Lama!”
She shook her head, tears spilling down her face.
“You didn’t freeze. You didn’t panic. You escaped and survived!” He set her down, his smile broad, contrasting with the blood oozing down from a gash in his forehead. “You almost outran one.”
“I was just . . . so scared . . . that it would . . .” She struggled to say anything coherent. “Kavi, I was terrified.”
“You picked up a crossbow and fought.” He pressed his forehead against hers. “How many soldiers can say the same and still look as beautiful as the sun setting over the Golden Sea?”
“Beautiful?” she gasped, his words cutting through her emotional turmoil. “I must be a mess. I am covered in dust and sweat and my yukata is torn. How can you say that?”
“Because you’re alive.” He said those last words like a prayer. His arms tightened around her. Her ribs creaked. “Layiv’s blessing, you’re alive. You spat in the demon’s face and escaped. Fear isn’t just an enemy. It can be your friend. We can only be truly great when the consequences matter. When we have terror beating in our hearts.”
Those words sank in. She had escaped. The demon had burst into the back of her wagon, wounded from Asozyem’s attack. It had sought easier prey. She’d kept her wits long enough to escape. Only when it had seemed hopeless had she succumbed to her fear.
It had given her the speed to stay alive just one heartbeat longer.
She rested her chin on his shoulder and stared at the twitching demon. The invader from the Black Reality spasmed with mock paroxysms of life, its body failing to realize it had died. She’d faced the most dangerous thing in the world and survived. She’d fought.
She could be a soldier’s wife.
Her family carved jade, a profession she loathed for its tedium. Any stone could have a hidden flaw. One that wouldn’t be known until the shaping began. Chip by chip, the outer layers were chiseled away, revealing either the sublime beauty of the stone or the disfiguring crack that would see it discarded.
Her husband was right when he’d called her beautiful. Her inner depths had been laid bare. She had not crumbled. This day, she’d faced what life at the Diamond Ward, guarding Black Blood Rift, would be like. It had not broken her. Would not break her.
Lamahavi did not regret her choice to be a soldier’s wife.
To be continued…
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