It’s been months since doing anything with this blog. What with movie theaters shut down, there’s not much in the way of films to review, so I’ve been writing. The second book in a my newest fantasy series, Seasons of War, comes out tomorrow. This is a short story from that world. The character was inspired by my son, who passed unexpectedly, in September. The book released tomorrow, Out of the Sea, is dedicated to him.
Revenge and Remembrance
Voxel polished his mother’s armor, smoothing the soft cleaning cloth over the chest plate. He’d had to alter the buckles and straps for it to fit him. It hadn’t been difficult. She’d been a tall woman, more muscular than he was, but he’d inherited her long limbs, stubbornness, and hot temper. Since she wasn’t alive to show his affection, he cared for her armor, proud of the Calvary insignia, her name etched into her sword, and her status embossed in dark blue on the silver metal: Outrider and Archer, first rank.
When his mother discovered she was pregnant, she applied for a dispensation. Warriors were denied active duty if they carried a child. She left Camp Xur and rode home to Sha until her child was born. As soon as she was able, she returned to active duty. He saw his mother rarely, usually on his birthing day or when she delivered dispatches to Sha.
“Voxel, put that away. There is work to be done. The Cavalry leaves tomorrow.”
“I finished the arrows, Grandfather.”
Voxel gestured with his head to the crates of barbed arrows stacked against the armory’s back door. One wall of the armory and smithy had been raised, propped up on poles, and left open during the day due to the heat from the forge.
Voxel used a forearm to swipe the sweat from his brow as his grandfather grumbled, “What about the spears?”
“Done and already loaded on the cart.”
Others avoided Cal of Sha’s perpetually gruff temperament, but his grandfather’s irascible manner made Voxel smile. Tall and bulging with muscle and attitude, customers that came to the smithy didn’t linger to chat.
As a boy growing up without his mother, Voxel had been told that his grandfather hadn’t always been that way. The change happened when Cal’s wife had gone off with another man. Then his daughter had left him for the Cavalry.
They also commented that Voxel had his late mother’s unpredictable disposition, merry and teasing one moment, then in an instant, fierce and combative. Voxel knew that about himself and also knew that he would one day break what was left of his grandfather’s heart by achieving improbable.
The improbable, not the impossible.
Since he’d first touched the armor that he now carefully packed away, he was determined to fight with the Cavalry. From the moment he’d found her things in a battered trunk and brushed aside the dusty packing cloths, he knew what he had to do. He had to avenge his mother’s reportedly heroic death. The problem with that desire was that he was young and male. The Cavalry was made up entirely of females with the exception of Lorin-Sha, who like his father, had empathy with chargers. Voxel’s mother possessed that extraordinary gift that was so necessary for acceptance into the Cavalry. In addition to her temperament, she bequeathed her son the empathic talent rarely found in men.
Most chargers couldn’t survive the loss of their riders. They often went mad and had to be put down. His mother’s mount became despondent, and in confused grief, traveled to Sha to find her. Voxel took him to the forest, hand fed him, offering him the freedom and time to heal. Because of his mother’s gift of empathy, Voxel was able to share comforting memories of her. In time, his mother’s charger regained sanity.
Wild chargers, brown and much smaller than the Cavalry bred, ran free in Sha’s forests. They usually avoided the massive black specimens trained from birth to become living machines of war. His mother’s charger sired foals with brown speckles, and in secret, Voxel chose a female as aggressive as her sire and filed serrations into her fangs like the warriors did with their mounts. He now had a charger of his own and his mother’s armor.
He was ready for combat when word that an invasion was expected on the coast near Cavalry Stud Farm in eastern Xur. The urge to fight rippled beneath his skin. Vengeance burned in his soul, but he wasn’t ready to hurt his grandfather.
As Sha’s Cavalry contingent moved out the next morning, Voxel stood under the armory’s upraised wall. His grandfather joined him, morose and glaring at the tail-docked rumps of the chargers moving down the dusty road.
His grandfather broke the silence. “They will walk or slow jog them all the way to Xur to save their strength. It will take three or four days to meet up with the rest of them on the coast in Xur.”
When Voxel said nothing, his grandfather continued with an explanation Voxel didn’t need but wanted to hear. “The talk in the village is that a sorceress rules creatures from underneath the ground. Whatever they are, they look aquatic in confirmation and come up from the cave tunnels along the coastline.”
“Yes. That is what I heard. Lorin-Sha is leading our warriors. Lord Sha must be worried.”
“Yes. That is to be expected, but he will not interfere with his son’s duty. Nor will I.”
Voxel closed his eyes as an ache filled his chest. “Grandfather.”
His grandfather turned away to stoke the forge. “I am not blind and know what you have been doing all these seasons in the forest. Your mother couldn’t help herself either. She had to go off to fight. And die. They sent her things home with honors, but courage is no comfort for those left behind.”
When Voxel exhaled a long sigh and shook his head, his grandfather said, “Tack up, boy. That spotted charger is watching you from the woods along the village road. Since the only thing I have left of your mother is armor and you, I assume you have her talent for empathy. Your mount has been guarding your things.”
His grandfather kept working the bellows as Voxel went to stand behind his grandfather, gripped his wide shoulders, and pressed his cheek into the flexing muscles across his back. “This is for her, Grandfather.”
He nodded and never looked up from the angry glow and heat of the forge. Voxel stepped back and went to collect the hide bag that held his mother’s armor. He jogged down the road to his charger, put on the armor, and swung up onto her back. She knew where to go—to the hidden cache of her saddle and his weapons. He cinched the Cavalry saddle, tucked the bow in its sheath, strapped on greaves, and mounted up. He savored and shared his charger’s eagerness to do battle as they cantered away from the valley that was his home.
They followed Sha’s Cavalry contingent south then east. He shot harpies for his charger to eat and munched on the seed bread and fruit he’d packed the morning he’d left. Water had to be rationed as they crossed the province of Nir. He hid in the woods for three nights after they reached Xur, waiting and listening for the whistle command for the Cavalry to assemble. When it came, his heart pounded as he rode to the back of the warriors lined up and waiting for orders. A few glanced his way, but he knew that outsiders often tried to join the ranks and were typically told to leave. Setting his jaw, he resolved to ignore anyone who told him to go away. He never thought that the person to confront him would be the Cavalry Leader herself, Denea, survivor of the slaying of the Spawn on the Dawn That Bleeds.
She rode along the rows of warriors, her charger mean-eyed and menacing. His filed fangs gleamed in the sunlight. Her intricately embossed armor and helmet glinted harsh reflections. While her ferocious mount displayed impatience for battle, Cavalry Leader was the embodiment of calm calculation. When she halted her charged at the end of the line to examine an interloper, her expression remained impassive.
Denea focused her attention on his smaller charger. Her own snarled his annoyance at Voxel’s mount, sensing that she had no training, but his charger stood her ground, bared her spiky teeth, and hissed in his face. Voxel worked to suppress his grin, while Denea removed the command whistle from her mouth.
Leaning back in her saddle, Cavalry Leader said, “That mix-breed you ride was sired by the mount of the late warrior Voxella of Sha.”
“Yes, Cavalry Leader.”
“And you wear her armor.”
He forced himself to stay silent and still, to not react when she eyed his quiver of barbed arrows and the spare quivers lashed to the saddle. He expected her to remind him that it was illegal to do so, but instead she asked, “You any good with her bow?”
“I am my mother’s son, Cavalry Leader.”
When he jerked a nod, his helmet shifted slightly. Warriors plaited their braids in a way that held the headgear in place. He’d let his grow enough to braid but didn’t know how the warriors did the braids. Another worry added to the dread of waiting to be told to leave. Sensing his distress, his charger shifted and made an odd, mewling sound.
Denea said, “Come with me.”
He forced down a swallow and told his charger to follow the heavily muscled rump of the Cavalry Leader’s mount. It wasn’t easy to cover his surprise when he was escorted toward the head of the line. They rode by rows of warriors with spears pointed up, looking like a forest of bristling spikes.
With a nod of Denea’s helmeted head, an archer shifted her mount to make room for him. While his charger obediently backed into the empty spot, a warrior down the line raised her hand. Denea’s nod brought the archer out of position, and she rode up, saluting with an arm-smacking clank against her chest plate.
“Cavalry Leader, may I stand beside the recruit?”
Denea nodded and the exchange took place as Cavalry Leader continued her inspection. The experienced warrior beside her said, “I am Misdra. Your mother was a friend of mine and Lorin-Sha’s.”
“He never mentioned it.”
A corner of Misdra’s mouth twitched. “Sounds like Lorin, the surly sot.”
“I am Voxel of Sha. I assume you will explain the whistle commands.”
“Attention and prepare for attack is two short bursts. Aim and fire at will is one. A long one that rises at the end is charge. We are spaced this way for the ones behind us with spears. They ride through the archers after the initial barrage. We stay on the perimeter to guard the flanks and shoot down anything that tries to escape.”
“What is that noise?” Unfamiliar shrieks and grunts were oddly muffled, and with every moment that passed, increased in volume and fury.
Misdra had to raise her voice to be heard over the escalating noise. “That is the enemy. Reports say they will be twice the size of a charger, may have armor-hard scales. Aim for the eyes. Get ready.”
Two short bursts blasted from Denea’s whistle. All around him, warriors shouted, “For Omirr and Voxella!”
Then they screamed in unison, a high, shrill battle cry. The hairs on the back of his neck lifted from the eerie sound. He clamped spare arrows between his teeth, nocked an arrow, and prepared. The ground shuddered. Chargers shrieked for release as monsters burst up from the soil, spraying dirt and rocks. Webbed claws came out first then heads covered in scales, gigantic jaws lined with teeth, beneath small, blue-black eyes. More rabid creatures crawled out of the holes. He smiled around the metal clenched in his teeth when the whistle command came. There was no time to savor the victory of watching monsters slam head first into the ground from barbed arrows that never missed. His own arrow struck true. He reached for the next, aimed, and let it fly.
With every arrow that found its mark, the relentless rage for the loss of his mother eased, and somehow he knew that he would survive, and perhaps become the second man to be inducted into the Cavalry and make his mother proud.
When the warriors behind the archers charged forward, Voxel’s charger begged to join the savagery. Voxel mentally held her in check and joined the rest of the archers on the flank to finish off the escapees. Time dissolved. His muscles ached from nonstop shooting. When victory was apparent, the archers allowed their mounts to join the melee and tear into anything that still lived. His mare was the daughter of one of the Cavalry’s finest and did her work without instruction. When the whistle next blew, his mare followed the Cavalry mounts into retreat and to regroup.
Warriors came to congratulate his mount now that she’d been bloodied. Misdra slapped his back. “Well done, warrior. It takes a strong empath to keep them in hand.”
A blush burned his cheeks. “I always wanted a sister.”
She handed across a water flask. “Poor fellow. Now you have a battalion.”
He didn’t have to explain to her when he asked, “Do I have a chance?”
Misdra glanced at Cavalry Leader. “You handled yourself and your mount well. And your mother was a favorite.”
“But that might not be enough.” The vibrant rush of battle excitement waned. Reality filled the void. “And I am young.”
Misdra’s nose wrinkled as her lips made a moue. “Induction age has to do with being strong enough to carry a wounded sister from the field. Being male, you developed strength earlier but are still kind of skinny.”
He pinched back a smile that faded when he saw Denea riding up. His heart began to thump. He hoped his eyes wouldn’t start to leak when she sent him away.
Denea removed the whistle she’d kept clenched in her teeth and leaned forward to brace a forearm on the saddle. She looked him in the eye. “You never missed.”
How had she seen that amid all the chaos?
“Son of Voxella, would you like me to advocate with Lord Sha for sponsorship?”
He gulped and said nothing, doubting he could. Her narrow-eyed inspection revealed none of her thoughts. She straightened in the saddle and scratched her jaw. Comprehending what she was asking was too difficult to unravel. His throat was too tight for speaking. He reviewed what she’d just said to be sure he’d heard her correctly. All he could do was nod, and feeling stupid, watched her ride off.
Through a haze of shock, he felt Misdra’s grip on his arm. “Ladnor-Sha is a generous man. He will do it. Of that I am sure.”
Using the back of his wrist, he swiped the wet from his cheeks. “She is making an exception?”
“Sounds like it, and I warn you now, you better sow any oats you have lying around, because there will be none of that once you are inducted.”
He’d started thinking about that at the beginning of last season, noticing girls, and had been very well aware that Cavalry membership included a celibacy rule. The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. “But Lorin-Sha is married.”
Misdra snorted a laugh. “He is royalty and so is his wife.” She shook her head at him. “In addition to getting yourself inducted in the Cavalry, do you also have it in mind to marry a royal?”
“The Cavalry is more than enough.” Tilting back his head, he looked up at the cloudless blue sky and whispered, “For you, Mother and Omirr.”
M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)
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