“If there is no wound on hand, one may handle poison; poison cannot affect one who has no wound, as there can be no evil for one who has no evil intention.”
– Samaran Scripture: The Path of Eternal Truth
“So how are you doing?”
Luna felt Mikhail turn towards her as they strolled along the nearby stream on a frosty, late-autumn morning. It had been five days since the young girl accompanied her master to the camp, and the middle-aged man had checked up on her every other morning.
“Quite well,” the young girl wore a gentle smile as she met the priest’s gaze. “The men are treating me kindly, though I could do without so much attention.”
She was wearing her plain brown-and-white dress along with the faded green cloak that Konstantin once called ‘an old blanket’. It had been her only choice of wardrobe ever since she arrived, as the young lord declared it ‘inappropriate’ for her to go around a military camp dressed as an aristocrat’s maid. She had come to agree with him as she seemed to attract stares no matter where she went even in this attire. The ratio of females to males was simply too low in camp and some of the gazes that fell upon her were decidedly discomforting.
Her one saving grace was that whenever she went anywhere near Katsiaryna all attention immediately shifted. The young Tuchkova had something of a celebrity status, and wherever she went the men’s gazes followed.
Though Her Ladyship seems to be enjoying it, Luna reflected as they arrived at the watermill that Mikhail’s apprentices had finished building several days ago.
The building was an ingenious design. The large water wheel rotated not a stone mill, but a row of smaller paddle wheels that rinsed clothes inside individual wash buckets. There was even a stone hearth beneath, with heat channeled to warm the water in the metal pails. It greatly reduced the complexity of washing cloths for the sweating recruits, as all they had to do was scrub out the dirty spots before dropping their laundry inside a bucket.
Luna herself certainly sang its praises when she inspected the camp’s sanitation arrangements, including the new wells, outhouses, and steamhouses.
“Father Misha,” Luna remarked as she marveled at mechanical axles that allowed one wheel to propel many. “I’m surprised you built all of this, not just the cabins but also smokehouses, storehouses, steamhouses, and even a laundry mill. Yet you still haven’t built a chapel!”
“Priorities,” Mikhail’s lips twisted under his thick mustache. “Only an overfed evangelist from Arcadia can believe that faith could replace the basic necessities of life. The Holy Father wants his children to live in good health, not as a mass of sickly, starving men with no roof over their heads.
“Of course, I am working on a chapel in my spare time,” he then added. “However an altar of worship must be a model of dedication. It is not a project to be rushed for the sake of convenience. Unlike this mess.”
Mikhail shook his head at the laundry room floor as he finished. Luna merely smiled in response.
When it came to household chores, men were still men. The young girl found all the wash buckets occupied, the clothes inside thoroughly rinsed after an entire night. The drying poles in the heated room were full as well, and on the floor was a line of dirty laundry buckets waiting their turn.
One by one, Luna emptied the wash buckets and hung the clothes onto the drying poles. Those already dry she folded and left in stacks for the men to come collect. She then poured five sets of soaking laundry into now empty pails, with the sixth being used for Konstantin’s clothes.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Mikhail noted though he nevertheless gave her a hand. “This isn’t the manor. Unless His Lordship has told you differently.”
It seemed that he had already spoken to Konstantin about this.
“I know,” Luna casually responded. “But I don’t mind. Besides, His Lordship is helpless with personal tidiness. Our bedroom floor would be buried under dirty clothes if I didn’t do his wash for him.”
Mikhail chuckled, before the smile quickly faded from his lips.
“Speaking of bedrooms, I hope you and the young lord enjoyed the bed. I made it for you two myself.”
“Yes, we have. It’s quite comfortable, and beautiful as well,” Luna thanked him with a cheery smile as she stepped back outside with Father Mikhail.
She envisioned the intricate flowers carved into the wooden headboard as she dried her hands on her skirt. The entire bed frame had a meadow motif, and Mikhail even accurately reproduced many of Luna’s favorite rosemaries and chamomiles.
She also completely failed to anticipate where the topic was headed.
“It’s not really my role, Lucina.” Mikhail called her real name as he joined Luna in watching the paddle wheel spin. “But since your parents are gone, I feel I have an obligation as their friend to watch over you. Considering the two of you are sleeping together, I wish you and His Lordship would… at least seal some sort of formal relationship.”
Luna pursed her lips and looked aside as she found the topic deeply uncomfortable, except not in the way the Father Mikhail presumed.
“I realize that he is a virile young man and that Northern cultures do not see premarital intimacy as immoral,” Mikhail continued. “But the Samarans… I remember your mother and I agreed on this topic. Besides, it’s not like the Northerners are limited to one woman. Even with a significant difference in social stature, he can always have you as a secondary wife.”
My mother also doesn’t know what became of her daughter, Luna thought with a wry smile. Furthermore, even if she and Konstantin actually had the relationship that Father Mikhail presumed, Samaran Scriptures do not actually define wanton activities as ‘immoral’.
Sure, submitting to carnal needs was hardly considered virtuous. However unlike the polarization of morality in Trinitian philosophy, Samaran values were more nuanced. ‘Not virtuous’ did not make it a sin. There were wide gaps of ‘just plain human’ in between.
Thankfully though she didn’t have come up with an excuse. Konstantin had once provided the explanation himself:
“His Lordship has no intention of forming any familial relations until his own status is more secure,” Luna shrugged. “The Grand Prince could always charge him with treason and accuse those related to him with ‘guilty by association’.”
“Politics is the eighth sin, I swear,” Mikhail sighed. “But does he love you, at least?”
“That’s… not for me to claim,” Luna answered as she thought back to the night when they moved in. Was she still just a servant to Konstantin? A trusted confidante? Or was there… something else?
As their time together grew, it had become more and more difficult to define their relationship in simple terms.
“I can only say that he has always protected and respected and cared for me,” Luna stated. “And I consider that far more important than being loved.”
For a moment, Mikhail said nothing as his brown eyes measured Luna’s crystal blue gaze. Then, with a forced smile that looked satisfied for now, the priest answered:
“I guess that’s good enough.”
Luna’s smile widened as she felt a tear of joy glazing her eyes. Other adolescents her age might have found Mikhail’s questioning intrusive. But for an orphan who lost her family in the flames of war, there was nothing more heartwarming than to know she still had someone — someone who cared deeply for her while expecting nothing in return; someone who unconditionally loved her as her parents once did.
“I do appreciate your concern, Father.” Luna added afterwards, fully realizing the double meaning of what she called him.
Mikhail could not have missed the stressed intonation. His eyes glistened as he reached over and took the young girl into his embrace.
Luna and Mikhail stood by the stream for several more minutes, occasionally making chit chat but mostly just relaxed in each other’s company while listening to the water’s flow. It wasn’t until a group of soldiers came to retrieve their washed clothes when the good father resurrected their previous topic:
“At last. Now you can stop being their mother and do something else with your morning,” he joked.
“I don’t really have anything though,” Luna shrugged. “I’m holding afternoon classes today.”
Her official duty, as Konstantin had told her, was to teach interested recruits how to be field medics. She held daily, open lessons for anyone wishing to attend on how to diagnose injuries and common ailments, how to clean and dress wounds, as well as how to recognize and use common herbs. She even taught those interested how to make a basic marigold, nettle, and myrrh resin poultice –all ingredients commonly found in the forest– that could stop bleeding and prevent infections from wounds.
However the medical training took up only an hour or two each day, as those recruits had weapons and endurance exercises to attend as well. This left Luna with more free time than she has had in years. Some of it she took to venture out and collect more herbs and stockpile medical supplies. But the rest…
“To be honest, I don’t know what to do with the spare hours I have,” Luna admitted. “His Lordship encourages me to read a little, but I’m not used to sitting for hours. I have to get up and walk about and do work, and…” she looked towards the ‘laundry mill’ they still stood next to, “He did tell me to take responsibility over the camp’s hygiene.”
“Taking responsibility is not the same thing as doing everything yourself,” Father Mikhail commented. “The men are never going to learn to do their own chores if you keep filling in whenever they get lazy. As for spare time, you’re living on a military camp right now. How about learning a weapon so you can defend yourself?”
Drawn in by his words, Luna’s eyes met Mikhail’s gaze again. His countenance was downright serious without an inkling of humor. And she was once more reminded of how he told her during the ambush that she couldn’t always rely on others to stand up for herself.
“But I’m a Samaran,” Luna replied. “Mother has always taught me that we should neither seek to harm nor kill.”
“Pacifism is not the same as passivity. People often forget this,” Mikhail stressed. “I know your father didn’t visit Samara often so you may not remember. But I’ve been there and I’ve seen. Every boy of fifteen or older is proficient with a staff and practices it as daily exercise. Every man is on a rotating schedule of watch and patrol duties. Samara is one of the few places where every adult male could be mobilized as militia if there is a need.”
The young girl’s eyes widened as she stared back. It’s the first time I’ve heard of this!
“Being a pacifist does not mean you do not fight in defense,” Mikhail declared. “And sometimes that means disabling your opponent in order to save a life, including your own.”
Luna frowned. “But I’ve never even seen mother swing a weapon.”
“Your mother had a thin build just like you. She could never match a man in strength, however she did carry needles and darts that could put a man to sleep,” Father Mikhail grinned. “Poisons were not her forte but she was no stranger to them. I know your father’s dagger pommel carried a dose of ointment she made. I think he called it the… ‘fly garlic lady’?”
“I think you meant ‘fly agaric’,” Luna giggled. The white-spotted redcap mushroom carried an extremely potent neurotoxin, especially during the growth seasons of Spring and Summer. It wasn’t lethal, but it could cause delirium, hallucinations, and seizures which would easily disable an opponent.
As for ‘lady’, she wasn’t sure. The most likely candidate was belladonna, which meant ‘beautiful lady’ in rural Arcadian due to the insane practice of using a diluted form as cosmetic. This plant was also extremely toxic, especially the roots, and could induce anything from paralysis to permanent blindness to death, depending on the dosage.
“But…” the young girl puzzled. “Why has she never told or taught me?”
“Probably because you were still too young. Making a poison wrong can be deadly,” Mikhail reflected. “But I’ve been to your lessons. And I’d say you’re certainly old and experienced enough now to take the proper precautions. You also recognize all the poisonous plants and their effects. Why not experiment a little?”
Luna bit her lower lip as she hesitantly nodded. She didn’t want a reputation for poisons — perhaps that was the reason why only an old family friend like Father Mikhail even knew her mother carried them. But the Trinitian priest was also correct: it was wartime and she needed to learn self-defense, not to mention such toxins could save someone she cared about in a pinch.
The young Samaran girl shivered as her hand went down to her lower abdomen. She still remembered Konstantin describing to her how the magical tattoo would activate if a man took her maidenhood. In a war there was always a possibility that she could face capture. And even if she had zero desire of serving a new master, an inability to resist would leave her without any choice.
“Of course, all poisons need an effective delivery mechanism, which means you should still learn a weapon,” Mikhail continued. “I know spears and axes, bows and crossbows. But I’m no training expert. What’s best for you?” He shrugged. “I suggest talking to Commander Anton… or even Lady Katsiaryna.”
He then chuckled to himself as he looked across the stream. Luna did too as she heard the voices of Konstantin and Katsiaryna bickering again. The two nobles walked down a gentle slope on the other side of a wooden bridge. Behind the two aristocrats was Anton, who followed in silence with a faint but amused grin.
First thing in the morning too. Luna thought as she watched them near. They really are like siblings.
“What difficulty could there be? Just give me a command!” Katsiaryna was still harrying Konstantin for a proper position when the latter found a golden opportunity to change the topic.
“We’ll talk about this later, Katya. And morning, Luna.”
“Your Lordship. Your Ladyship.” The Samaran girl curtsied before greeting them both with a gentle smile.
“You see what I mean, Katya,” Konstantin scowled as he rushed up to Luna and waved her faded, wool cloak. “I need you to get this girl a new outfit. I’m embarrassed just to stand next to her like this yet she claims she’s fine with this moldy old carpet.”
Katsiaryna sighed at Konstantin before her eyes examined Luna with a scandalized scowl. It wasn’t the first time, but until now she hadn’t said a word about it.
“Lidiya wasn’t any different. What is with you Samarans and your indifference towards your own image? Forget being fashionable, at least pretend you’ve changed clothes sometimes in the past decade!”
“These are only four years old,” Luna protested.
“Gahhh!” Katsiaryna balled both fists as she raised them. “Only four years? Even the peasant girls in our village change their clothes at least once a year! That’s it! I’m going to design you an outfit and have it tailored. And you’re going to wear it even if I have to burn your old rags!”
“B-but…” Luna stammered as she tried to come up with a response. Katsiaryna’s rapid-fire speech came with such haste it was impossible for her to listen and consider her reply at the same time.
“No buts!” Katsiaryna declared and she grabbed the smaller girl by the shoulders and marched her back towards the outer camp where they had come from.
As she was being pulled away, Luna managed to catch sight of Konstantin who wore a slight grin, as though remarking ‘now you know what I have to deal with.’
They passed dozens of freshly woken soldiers along the way to Katsiaryna’s cabin. All of them turned about in wonder of why the encampment’s young lady was kidnapping the only other girl around.
The cabin was not far from Konstantin’s own. Except instead of being sheltered by trees all around, her clear glass windows overlooked the nearby stream. Built from wooden panels and painted a soft lavender, her cabin had three clear-glass windows and brick-red shingles on its roof.
It might still be a small, one-room cabin, but it looked downright posh compared to every other building in the camp.
Katsiaryna soon dragged Luna inside and forced the Samaran girl to stand in the middle of the room. She then wielded a leather cord and began to measure every part of Luna’s body.
Perhaps it was because of her years spent as a mercenary, but it was clear to Luna that Katsiaryna didn’t care at all about the social differences between them.
What puzzled Luna even more, was the fact Katsiaryna also never tried to ‘establish superiority’ in their relationship, as many other rich girls had done when Luna was growing up. After all, the young lady had once been Konstantin’s betrothed and still clung on to the title, while Luna was Konstantin’s mistress as far as anyone in camp knew.
Does she just not care? The smaller girl thought. Or maybe it’s because I’m not a threat to her?
“Luna — you’re a girl with natural gifts. You need to treasure them and not let them go to waste!” Katsiaryna pulled Luna’s attention back to the present as she reprimanded while continuing to take measurements. “The men can pay all the lip service they want about a woman with a good personality or skills. However in the real world, it’s your looks that open doors for the rest of you!”
There was a shadow of frustration in Lady Katsiaryna’s tone that made it clear she had experience firsthand. It made Luna wonder if this was the reason why she so evidently promoted herself. As a female mercenary proud of her martial prowess, it certainly wouldn’t be easy to compete in the male-dominated field.
Not that it’s any different for me, the shorter girl thought. Where would I be today if my appearance hadn’t caught Konstantin’s gaze?
She didn’t like where the thought was heading, and to distract herself she gazed around the room to admire the beautiful reddish-pink of its cherry-wood furniture and walls. The cabin even had heavy, light-stopping drapes and fancy lace curtains that felt rather excessive for such temporary housing.
“This cabin is… quite impressive,” Luna remarked as Katsiaryna measured her chest, underbust, then proceeded to Luna’s waist and measured centipace by centipace.
Why does she need measurements this fine-grained? the smaller girl wondered as she continued to stand in T-pose as ordered.
“That’s because I bought it,” the Lady answered, clearly proud of her tastes. “I found this while I was adventuring around the Inner Sea. The cabin is enchanted to shrink down to a tiny model that could fit in a knapsack. Cost me around… only two thousand four hundred when converted to Polisian rubles? I ‘haggled a little’,” Katsiaryna ended with a smile as though it conjured an amusing memory.
So this cabin cost the same as me, Luna realized as she felt a strange sense of bonding with the magical house.
She would never forget just how much Konstantin had paid for her life. Even Captain Anton, whose pay was considerable at twenty-five silver rubles a month, would have to work eight years to earn such a hefty sum. But for lowly jobs such as that of a maid which paid only a silver per month at best, it was easily the earnings of a lifetime.
—— * * * ——
“You want to learn a weapon?”
Luna had followed Anton after breakfast. The Druzhina Captain now stood with his arms crossed, watching as over three hundred of his men gathered their equipment. They each took a long pole which served as a practice spear, as well as putting on a chainmail shirt — the only batch of armor that Konstantin had stockpiled. Many of them also took a forearm-strapped round wooden buckler, although there weren’t enough of those yet to go around.
“Yes, to defend myself,” Luna confirmed with a nod. “Father Misha suggested I talk to you.”
Anton turned around and looked her up and down.
“You have the nerves, I’ll admit,” he declared with a frown. “You managed to calm yourself during that ambush and fight back. Most people think that’s easy, but put them in the moment and they’ll cower or run like rabbits,” he sneered. “It’s certainly not something I see most girls managing.”
He stared up and down her short, scrawny body again.
“But you’re really not fighting material.” He scowled. “You’re too short, too weak, too narrow of frame. Any half-trained guardsman will overpower you within seconds.”
Luna felt like a cloud of pessimism suddenly fell over her. It had taken her hours of self-deliberation before she finally decided to ask, only to get slammed down almost immediately.
However, Anton wasn’t done. As the new recruits formed up into columns and began to march, the Druzhina Captain gestured for Luna to follow him.
“But not all weapons rely on strength,” he added in an even voice. “I can certainly train you to defend yourself, but it won’t be easy. When you have such a significant physical disadvantage, you must offset it by training your mind to be stronger than your opponent. You can’t afford to simply rely on aggression or reaction. You must stay calm and wait for the right moment, when your opponent is overextended for example, before making your move.”
“Like kick them between the legs?” Luna asked with an innocent look. She would always remember that lesson from her mother. It had helped her escape one encounter with deserters during the Iskar War.
However her reply simply made the old veteran cringe.
“Not always,” he answered as they walked along the dirt trail. “You want to attack them when and where they’re most open. That means a lack of armor coverage, while their weapons and shield are out of position to defend. This is not always easy to achieve, especially against veterans who know to keep a balance between offense and defense. Often times it means you have to create an opening for yourself.”
Luna frowned. She was having trouble imagining how this could be achieved.
“You know who is exceptional at this? Lady Katsiaryna,” Anton intoned with approval and even a hint of pride. “She isn’t strong and her height is mediocre at best, yet she routinely bests men of more imposing build and fighting experience. She’s fast, but she doesn’t rely on speed to win. Instead, it’s her finesse that allows her to use an opponent’s strength against them.”
The description left Luna even more puzzled. “What do you mean?”
The Druzhina Captain frowned, as though wondering how he could better explain than that. Then, with a faint smirk on his lips, he added:
“Her Ladyship will be participating in the drills today. Watch her carefully, and you might see what I mean. Pay special attention to when she blocks. Her buckler is really the centerpiece of her style.”
Luna nodded in acknowledgement, though the old veteran still wasn’t done.
“Remember, a girl should never contest men in raw strength. Nature is simply against you. Fight with your gifts, not your shortcomings. Any woman who claims otherwise is either an anomaly or an idiot.”
Standing behind Anton and to the side, Luna watched from atop a shallow hill overlooking the meadows west of the camp. From this side of the forest they had an unimpeded view to the Dead Mountains that rose just a few kilopaces away, as well as the sinister, everlasting gray mist that enshrouded them. Cursed since the final days of the Vampire Eradication War, the mountains were now a wasteland home to nightmares and monsters. Only the bravest mages with the necessary survival spells dared to enter it today, often returning with the famous Edelweiss flower that alone managed to grow inside the haze.
A dozen druzhina officers arranged the men into combat formation just outside the forest. Over three hundred recruits turned from a three-man wide marching column to a three-rank deep defensive line. Luna could only imagine how many hesitated at the sight of the gray mists. The Dead Mountains were often a part of horror stories told among peasants to warn children.
Meanwhile in the distance, she could see the dust kicked up by another dozen mounted druzhina. They were led by Konstantin and Katsiaryna, the latter flying just above ground on a pure-white pegasus mount that had bonded to her as a mage’s familiar. The rest of the horsemen soon vanished behind a ridge about three hundred paces away. For a moment after only Katsiaryna’s flying pegasus could be seen, until she circled about and landed beyond the ridge as well.
“Men!” Anton activated a runestone in hand before his voice boomed in a magically amplified voice. “Today is your first live exercise! You have been given what armor and shields that are available as you will be fighting enemies armed like yourselves! Some of you will be hurt, some even knocked unconscious! But remember that we have taken all precautions to ensure that your injuries will not be permanent!”
Even from a slight distance, Luna could see the men’s faces grow anxious as they heard Anton’s words. It was one thing to thrust a spear or swing an axe against an object that cannot respond. But when the opponent was alive and able to hit back, even with a club, then the entire situation suddenly changes.
Worse yet, none of them had any inkling of what they would face today. Konstantin had been so secretive that even Luna wasn’t certain.
“You have been drilled to stand firm with spear in hand for weeks! You have learned to fight in formation and rely on your cabin mates! Now, it’s time to see which of you has a spine and can put that into practice! Uphold your dignity as true men! Stand your ground no matter what comes over that horizon!”
As Anton finished, the remaining druzhina officers began walking up and down the line as they shouted their orders:
“First rank, brace!”
The first row of recruits began lowering themselves onto one knee. Their actions were far from uniform and it looked like multiple ripples spreading through the ranks. Nevertheless they did as ordered and readied their six-pace long poles, with the rear shaft braced against the ground and their right shoe. The ends of their poles presented a bristling wall of rounded tips at just above waist-height.
The second and third lines progressed faster as they lowered their blunt spears to waist level. They readied them at shaper inclines, with one row of would-be tips at chest-height and another at face-height. Together, the three-rank deep defensive line formed a multi-layered shield of wooden spines that would be impossible to charge against — as long as the men held steady.
The druzhina officers then took their positions at the ends of each forty-man platoon. Each of them raised a hand towards Anton to signal that their men were ready. As Anton saw the last of them raise their hand, he turned towards a flagbearer who stood beside Luna on the hill. The young man waved the sky-blue banner in his hands, signaling to the unseen cavalry in the distance.
Luna kept her attention trained on the distance, only to feel her eyes balloon as Konstantin, Katsiaryna, and Drazhan led three groups of cavalry over the ridge. What had been a mere fifteen somehow grew to over a hundred and twenty mounted troops, all of them kitted out in armor with practice lances strapped to their backs. Even Lady Katsiaryna wore a fitted chestplate with plated guards over her shoulders, arms, and legs, while her extremely long hair was bundled into a silver hair net that fell from her hairband to behind her neck.
At first, the horses advanced at a trot. All the riders except Konstantin carried bows and crossbows in hand which they used to unleash an arcing wave of shots. Over a hundred arrows and bolts soared overhead before landing amongst the ranks of men. Those who had bucklers hurriedly raised them to shield themselves, some in such haste that they stopped bracing their spears or even dropped them.
Several men cried out as the soaring projectiles struck them on the chest and shoulders. A few of them even fell to the ground as the impact alone knocked the wind out of them. As Luna scanned up and down the line, she estimated that they took just over a dozen ‘casualties’ in total. Nevertheless, the men’s first time under arrow barrage definitely left some shaken, even though the majority of projectiles harmlessly struck ground and immediately vanished.
Illusions, Luna recognized it at once thanks to Konstantin’s use of such spells. Chances were only a dozen of so of those projectiles were real, and all the others were just figments conjured by magic.
And if that’s the case, then the horsemen as well, the Samaran girl thought as she swiveled her gaze back towards the cavalry. The crossbowmen were still reloading their weapons while the archers unleashed a second volley.
“Mmmmh, maybe His Lordship is correct that the front ranks are better off with shorter spears and a pavise shield,” Anton muttered as he observed.
“It would certainly boost courage and allow the latter ranks to better take cover with their bucklers,” Luna noted. “One man focuses more on sheltering his squad from projectiles, while the latter two protect him with longer spears. It’s a symbiotic relationship that creates the very team interdependence that you wished for.”
It’s also the basis for ‘combined arms’, she thought back to the countless battles Alexei fought. Because no single troop type, no matter how capable, can achieve victory on their own against a matched foe.
Caught in the mood of the moment, Luna hadn’t even realized that she had just revealed to Anton what even Konstantin did not know — that she was no novice in the military arts.
“Sharp,” Anton smirked while his gaze stayed on the training field.
More men screamed in pain and fell. More men began to tremble and their spears swayed. The brave would climb back up even after taking a painful hit in their chest. But the average were already starting to quiver, with some taking backward steps toward the forest.
A third barrage followed, before the riders put away their ranged weapons and unstrapped their practice lances. The cavalry formed into three shallow wedges, each containing forty riders of a full platoon. Then, as they drew near a hundred paces of the defensive line, the leaders of each wedge heeled their steeds to pick up speed.
Within seconds, all one hundred twenty horsemen were galloping over the grassy meadow. The cavalrymen soon lowered their practice lances in unison, forming a neat, bristling row while they cried out “CHARGE!” as one.
The wooden poles that made up these lances had bundles of hay and wool wrapped around their ends to cushion the impact. Nevertheless, the tide of oncoming chargers looked no less imposing. Luna could feel the earth tremble as hundreds of hoofs repeatedly struck hard ground. The warsteeds seemed to grow ever larger as they neared, almost taking on monstrous proportions as they rushed towards the defensive line.
To the average farmer who stood with a stick in hand and had never seen so many horses at once, what came towards them seemed nothing less than an unstoppable wave of towering beasts and steely men. With many in the rank and file already shaken by the three volleys preceding the main charge, dozens of men dropped their spears and began to run towards the forest.
“Those linked illusion runes your Master provided are pretty impressive. Though I wonder what he used to make the ground tremble,” Anton remarked to Luna as they watched the cavalry wedges crash into the crumbling line of fresh recruits.
He’ll also no longer just be ‘Mister Moneybags’ after this, Luna thought of the nickname that some of the men called Konstantin.
Only a few handfuls of brave men stood their ground and held firm with their spears. Most of them pierced straight into figments without any resistance. The illusions began to vanish in groups after they made contact with the defensive line. However the same could not be said for the real cavalrymen interspersed between them, who rode through the gaps in the crumbling line and chased down those who ran away.
Lady Katsiaryna was one of them. Two of the spearmen opposing her actually managed to hold steady. She drove her pegasus to leap over both ‘spears’ before lancing the shoulder of a recruit who tried to run away. Her practice lance had a weakened shaft, which shattered to reduce the impact force but nevertheless sent the man sprawling. The young lady then cast the broken pieces aside and drew a padded wooden club. She began to make her way through the routing men, beating down upon any who broke ranks and fled.
A squad of spearmen near her actually managed to hold together. They formed a tight circle, covering each others’ backs while stabbing at any mounted officer who neared them. Two of them lunged towards Katsiaryna with their shafts. However the young lady wielded her buckler at a shallow angle, deflecting the attacks in a way that made them ricochet off her shield.
One of her attackers almost fell when Katsiaryna batted his weapon aside and completely unbalanced him.
So that’s what the Captain meant, Luna finally grasped what Anton said about using the attacker’s strength against them.
Regardless, Katsiaryna did not engage the squad that gathered in a hedgehog; not when there were others who broke formation to flee and made themselves easy pickings. She rode through the mass clubbing left and right. There would certainly be dozens who left the field today with a painful bruise as their lesson.
“Well, that worked better than expected,” Anton declared with a lopsided grin. “Can’t say I’m surprised they broke. The fresh greens always break against charging cavalry. Hopefully, with a few more practice runs, we’ll instill into these peasants some idea of what it feels like to face real mounted formations — usually well-equipped, experienced troops with magical support. Then, maybe then they’ll actually stand a chance of surviving a charge on the battlefield.”
“You seem like you’re enjoying this,” Luna commented as she winced whenever she saw another frightened recruit receive a club to their side. The few riders in the exercise all took care to neither trample anyone on the ground, nor smash the middle of the back where they might injure a spine; however everywhere else below the neck was fair game.
“At my age, the greatest pleasure of life is watching all of you grow, even if that means inflicting some pain on occasion.” Anton remarked with a proud grin. He then reached down to his waist before unbuckling a stiletto dagger — its sheath and blade was thinner than the usual dagger, while its guard was wide.
“I think you saw what Lady Katsiaryna did,” his mismatched gaze met Luna’s as he spoke.
“Yes,” the Samaran girl nodded. “She deflects attacks without stopping them, like skipping stones on water.”
“It’s much harder than it looks.” Anton added while examining the weapon in his hand with nostalgia. “To deflect well, she must judge the angle of attack in an eye’s blink, then defend in a manner that unbalances her enemy but not herself. The three crucial factors are awareness, composure, and footing.”
“You’ll train me then?” Luna’s voice rang hopeful.
“I should be clear first: I’m training you in self-defense, not to go fight on your own and get yourself killed,” Anton warned with a stern face that looked downright scary. “If battle ensues, you’re still better off keeping your distance. If you must fight, try to conceal your weapon so you can gain an initial advantage. Lady Katsiaryna has been perfecting her style since before she was nine. So don’t delude yourself by thinking you can try the same after just a few lessons.”
Luna immediately erased her smile and nodded seriously in exchange. She did agree with Anton, and besides… I don’t plan on wading into combat where I’d have to kill someone.
Satisfied with her answer, Anton spun the dagger in his gloved hand before offering its handle to her.
“This is a rather unique dagger, with a needle-dart thrower built into its spine. It’s an excellent surprise weapon for keeping concealed.”
The old veteran partially unsheathed the blade to show what he meant. The narrow blade had a thin groove that went from hilt to tip. A tiny hole at the hilt hinted that the pummel itself was hollow, which Anton opened to reveal the loading chamber and sinew cord of a bolt thrower.
“My old buddy always said he wanted to give this to a small girl,” he added as the scary gaze on his homely face transformed into a ferocious grin. “I used to think he was crazy, but now I kind of understand: there’s just something special about it. Though from a practical standpoint, I wish you were taller — maybe one last growth spurt.”
Judging by the pensive gaze he lent the weapon, Luna guessed that it must have belonged to one of his fallen comrades. She took up the dagger with a grateful nod and a sheepish smile:
“I think I already missed my final spurt. Barely gained a centipace since the Iskar War.”
“That was four years ago.” Anton raised an eyebrow. “You were what, fifteen then?”
Luna simply nodded, and the veteran sighed.
“It’s no wonder you’re short.”
—— * * * ——
Later that night, Konstantin was sitting slouched in the corner of his cottage. He had turned the corner seat into a padded couch. It was the most relaxing part of the room, right next to the row of bottles where Luna stored her dried rosemary and chamomile. Konstantin had always found the scent soothing, unlike many of the other herbs she kept which he told her to hide.
He suddenly bolted upright as alarm filled his gaze. With the latest news he received, he could no longer lay back and relax as he usually did during his chats with Aleksandr Tuchkov.
“You’ve made contact with the enemy then?” He voiced his thoughts over their shared Farspeak spell.
“Yes. Father, Kolya, and Palusha have successfully forced the crossing of Krasna River this morning,” Aleksandr replied in a grim tone. “They shattered two Eastling Mingghans — thousand-men regiments that had been guarding the river crossings. The Eastlings fought bravely, but Palusha secretly forded upriver with a detachment and struck them on the flank with a lance charge. We counted nearly eight hundred bodies with the rest fleeing southeast.”
Konstantin was confused. “That’s good news, isn’t it?”
The single, foreboding word from Aleksandr sent a chill into Konstantin’s chest.
“No, it definitely is not good news, Aleksandr’s voice was cold and fuming as he continued. “This was nothing but a skirmish. Two thousand men is merely one-twentieth of the Eastling invasion force. Yet Grand Prince Mstislav let this victory go straight to his head! Instead of consolidating our forces to meet the main Eastling host, he wants to ‘seize the opportunity’ and ordered each column to cross the river at their best speed!
“Had we anticipated this ahead of time… we should never have scored such a quick victory! Father knew Mstislav placed us in the vanguard to whittle our numbers. We should have played along and fought a bitter, if costly battle over the crossing. Then at least Mstislav would converge on us and take our enemies seriously, instead of going wild-eyed with envy because we took the opening glory!”
Konstantin frowned as his mind debated the pros and cons. Certainly, an army was at its most vulnerable during a river crossing. Only a limited number of troops could ford the river or cross a temporary bridge at once, creating a bottleneck that split the army along both banks. This not only divided the command hierarchy, but also left the men in need of reorganization after they crossed. Furthermore, the water itself weighed down their gear and reduced the performance of bows, while the bridges made easy targets for fire magic and arrows.
Yet at the same time, this was also why every army wanted to cross as quickly as possible and reform on the other side. The bulk of the Eastling forces were still besieging the fortress-city of Sarkel. Meanwhile the crossing taken by the Tuchkov vanguard was over six hundred kilopaces upstream.
“Mstislav’s main force is only one day away from the river though,” Konstantin noted based on the map he held in his head. “With preparations, he could ford the crossing in a single day, two at most. Surely not even an all-mounted army could ride six hundred kilopaces in two days and still be fit for battle? The trip alone would make their horses die of exhaustion!”
“The Eastlings are not like other armies!” Aleksandr stressed. “We had multiple reports from our Khanate allies on how the Eastling armies repeatedly outmaneuvered them on the field. Their scouts saw the Eastling riders change mounts without stopping, each cavalrymen bringing not just one or two, but as many as five spare horses! Can you imagine the speed of an army that can maintain a fast canter for hours without stopping?”
Konstantin’s eyes swelled. Even a mediocre horse could reach over twenty-five kilopaces per hour in speed at a canter. The drawback was always that it tired the animals over time, especially when they carried an armored rider. But if the Eastlings could continuously swap mounts to ensure no single horse grew exhausted…
“That’s two to three hundred kilopaces in a single day!” He exclaimed in disbelief.
“And that’s just a standard eight hour march. If you were a nomad born in the saddle, you could eat and even take turns sleeping on horseback. Now how far can you travel in a single day?”
“By the Stormlord, that’s flat out cheating!” Konstantin blurted out. “Did nobody tell Mstislav?”
“Of course we did! But he doesn’t believe it!” Aleksandr replied in exasperation. “He thinks the defeated Khanates were just making excuses for themselves! And that my family is trying to slow him down to deny him his share of the glory! Can you fucking imagine that? Him accusing us of putting political goals before military objectives!?”
That was like the third time Sachka had *ever* cursed, Konstantin thought, taken aback.
“Worse yet,” Aleksandr continued, “Mstislav has forbidden Father from continuing southward to engage the enemy, afraid we might steal another victory that he could otherwise claim! Otherwise Father might at least be able to disrupt the enemy’s march north, to force the Eastling into prematurely forming for battle and then initiating a fighting retreat to buy time!”
Konstantin barely even noticed when he had stood up. Now, he paced back and forth in his cottage’s living room, his mouth occasionally scowling and biting the index finger of his balled up fist. His bookkeeper Milosh, who sat at the desk sipping a cup of herbal tea, glanced towards him with wonder. However Konstantin hardly even noticed as he continued wearing a hole in the ground as though trying to drill into his basement.
“What can you do?” Konstantin asked quietly, almost in resignation as he could not come up with any ideas himself.
“There’s nothing we can do!” Aleksandr echoed the helpless feeling, albeit far more inflamed by frustration at the whole situation. “Father’s vanguard is out of supplies and Mstislav is only sending a day’s worth at a time to the river. There’s nothing he can do with a leash like that! All we can do now is pray. And hope that either Veles blesses us with rain to delay the Eastlings, or Mstislav comes to his senses before it’s too late!”
- Fun fact: Fly Agaric is actually the mushroom in the famous Mario Brothers. Thus, the entire game is basically the plumbers having a hallucinogenic trip.
- Belladonna: the Italian traders during the Renaissance were indeed crazy enough to use diluted Belladonna extract as a cosmetic, because it made womens’ eyes dilate.
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