The Stormguard’s saga continues…
THE SHIELD & THE BOW
“Who am I?”
A little girl stands opposite her master at the center of the sparring circle holding a wooden shield. The sun sets behind the foothills to the west, but she knows better than to show the long day’s fatigue inside the circle. “You are Professor Marcel …”
The flat of the master’s blunted swordblade leaves a stinging red imprint on her left cheek before she can register that he has moved.
“In battle, there are no professors. There are no names.” The master circles her, and she moves with him as he taught her, her eyes watering. “No husbands, no brothers. No sisters. No friends.” He strikes again, his blade slapping the wound anew.
“Y.. yes, Professor.” The girl sniffs up the pain, forces herself to remain light on her toes as the master switches direction.
“Who am I?”
“You are…” The sword swings between them and cracks into the girl’s shield, sending splinters flying. “…the sword.”
“And who are you?”
The sword swings again, a deadly whip in the master’s hand, smashing again into the shield. “I am the shield.”
“I am the sh… shield.” The strikes come faster, arcing and crashing, no mercy given for her small arms struggling to raise the shield, welts and bruises rising on her skin when she is too slow.
“I am the shield!” Blunted steel on wood sends shocks up the girl’s arm; sweat pours down her brow, meets with tears, rolls down her cheeks and throat and into her uniform.
“I am the shield!” she sobs, falling to her knees, the shield over her head. “The shield! I am the -”
Catherine sits up straight in the general’s tent, gasping out of sleep, drenched in sweat despite the cold night. A magic arrow protrudes from the chest of the man beside her, glowing blue in the dark.
“Kestrel,” she whispers.
The fur beneath her dead lover squelches with his blood when she rises. She dresses in silence, though she knows there is no need for quiet; she is alive because they want her to be.
Not so for the rest of the camp. Squinting into the dark, she steps outside, her boots soundless in the fresh snow. The smaller infantry tents are sieved with sizzling arrow-holes. The cold masks the bloody smell of death, freezing time. It is as if the sun will never rise, the dead will never decay and spring will never end the Winter War. Half inside her dream, her nose and fingers pink and numb, it is as if she is not stepping toward her own end.
In the center of camp, thirty unfamiliar women in familiar uniforms poke at the fire with sticks. They are young in the way of soldiers; war has a high turnover rate. Six Swords, two Axes, two Daggers, two Polearms, eight varied Mages, nine Shields and one Bow.
“Salut, Kestrel.” Catherine steps into the light, resting her shield in the snowdrift before her.
“Catherine!” calls The Bow with a grin that does not reach her eyes. She lopes through the snow to clasp Catherine’s hand, setting her bow in the snow beside the shield. “Kind of a demotion, isn’t it, settling other countries’ border disputes?”
“It pays well.”
Kestrel drags her fingers up the wings of Catherine’s pauldron. Bump-bump-bump. “Did you leave your Sword in bed?”
“Indeed.” Catherine peers past the fire at the Stormguard as they move into position. “You rendered it quite useless.”
Kestrel smirks. “Rumor is, you gave up your blade in a fit of guilt.”
“You will soon find that I don’t need it.”
“Understandable. Weapons, armies, even whole institutions, outstay their welcomes.”
Catherine rests one arm atop her shield. “It is not like you to be so chatty.”
“Just catching up. Been a really long time.” Kestrel plucks up her weapon in her left hand. In her right, four glowing arrows snap into existence. On the other side of the fire, the others push back their white fur hoods and draw their weapons; fire and ice and energy form in the palms of the mages. With a nod, Catherine pulls her shield from the snow, and she is Catherine no longer, and Kestrel is no longer Kestrel, and a thin gray line of dawn forms at the edge of the sky.
In the moment before the chaos, a breeze swirls light snowflakes around the tents full of dead soldiers. Sparks explode above the fire. The Shield rises. The Bow fits the glowing arrow to the bowstring and pulls it back, her fingers resting on her cheek.
Then, she spins on her back foot and looses the arrow through the flames.
The battle will continue…
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