It had been a hard flight from the castle in Caneria for the young sorcerer. His brother was amazing, he thought. He never tired and the mage was sure that he had only stopped to sleep because Kish had told him to, and she was only stopping because her stolen horse needed rest.
They had run straight through the jungle to the open plains of Desidan in less than four days. He himself was exhausted from flying, which was a new experience for him. He’d never been pushed so hard in his life. He had even tried running for a while, but having never done it before, he fell behind rather quickly and had to give up and return to flying.
Now he sat alone on a fur blanket in a barbarian war camp on the western edge of Desidor. He was rolling the stolen mask of Lord Cailo in his fingers. He contemplated a name. He had always wanted a name. Mercutian had never named either of them. The old wizard thought it unseemly to give laboratory animals proper titles. At best he was called “boy”; at worst he was called ‘slave’. Never a name.
He turned the mask over in his hands thoughtfully and felt the smooth white features. He didn’t even really know why he had taken it with him, nor the cloak for that matter. He certainly didn’t need them. He wasn’t even sure that he wanted them, but they were now his. And they were his first and only possessions. He looked into its slightly smiling eyes as if it might offer inspiration. Instead, the hollow sockets justreminded him how much he didn’t belong here.
All around him there was noise and bustle and the accoutrements of a nation at war. Elk were being painted and barbs tied to their antlers. Blades were being sharpened. Chiefs were arguing loudly in the king’s tent as to who would lead what charge. He could hear jackals snarling and arguing over the meat that they’d been tossed. Beside him, his brother slept peacefully, snoring slightly, oblivious to the cacophony all around him.
It was strange to see him like this: peaceful, happy, childlike. Only a few months ago, he had been begging for death. His whole life he’d been cursed with an insatiable hunger and Mercutian had fed him all manner of things from bizarre sea creatures to human bodies just to observe the results. It was a life of pain and guilt.
Delizah, Mercutian’s daughter, would make things even worse. She would leave food just out of his reach and watch him struggle against his chains to get it. She would take away whatever magical source Mercutian had left for him and watch him writhe and choke as his body tried to consume its own life force before returning it. He had wanted to die since before he could walk and now he was running free, having completely forgotten his tortured past.
The young sorcerer was a little envious of his brother. He would never be able to forget the years of enslavement; the monstrous things that he’d had to watch himself do at Mercutian’s bidding; the people that cried for help and mercy from the old wizard while he sat unable to lift a finger in their defence. He was damaged, he knew, and he’d never really fit in anywhere. But at least he’d be free.
He fidgeted with his shimmering cloak as he watched a pack of Sun Jackals, their coats glowing like fire in the daylight, give him a wide berth. They’d had a bit of a scuffle when he first showed up wearing the starcloth robe. He put them in their place pretty quickly and after some heated words, they came to accept that there was nothing that they could do to break the cloak and he was more than capable of defending himself. Again he questioned his attachment to it. He didn’t even like it. It was tacky, too big for him, excessively bright and despite clearly being very old, it still stank of dog when it got wet. Despite all that, he clung to it and fought for it when the jackals tried to strip it from him.
Now the jackals prowled around uncertainly. They had been tricked into joining this war by Mercutian in disguise. They had been promised their own lands like the wolves of the north. Though the deal still stood by word of the young king, the fact that they were only enlisted so that the crafty old mage could shave their dead made their allegiance uneasy.
“Oi! Juvai!” A biting voice pulled him out of his thoughts. “There is war tomorrow. Everybody works!” A man thrice his size threw a pile of rusted axes and a whet stone at his feet.
“What did you call me?” The young sorcerer stared at the monster of a man as he reached for the most mistreated hatchet in the pile.
“Juvai. Outsider,” the man grunted. “It is what you are.”
The sorcerer mumbled and focused as he ran his hands over the rusted surface of the axe and his fingers along the edge. It fit nicely, he thought. It felt good on the tongue and it suited his sense of self. “So it is.” He smiled slightly as he handed back the gleaming polished axe. “What is your name?”
“I am called Herug the Smith, son of Farut,” he announced proudly before noticing the implausibly clean, razor-sharp blade being handed to him. “What are you called?”
The boy bowed slightly. “I am called Juvai the Sorcerer, son of no man.” He liked it. He liked introducing himself, it felt good. For emphasis, he made the rusty arsenal at his feet float up and begin polishing themselves.
“Juvai the Sorcerer?” The burly smith had lost some of his bluster and stepped back from the cloud of steel in front of him. “You sharpen axes well.” The smith was not at all comfortable with magic and tried to distract himself. “Who is that?” he said, pointing carefully at the sleeping boy on the ground.
“That is my brother,” said Juvai proudly.
“Is he a sorcerer too?”
“No, Harug the Smith. He…” Juvai paused for a moment’s contemplation. “…is a monster—a carefree, innocent monster. Now, bring me some more weapons to sharpen.”
Juvai enjoyed working. It surprised him because he had heard so many people complain. But it felt good to do things by choice. He worked through chore after chore over the day. He moved among the vast throngs of raging humanity that made up the Desidan war-force. He drifted between boasts of the glory and valour to come. He dodged countless scuffles that had erupted between warriors too excited to wait for the enemy.
Even hovering, he was a head shorter than most of the army and a fair bit softer around the middle. That, he thought, made it even more rewarding when he was thanked for his work and given a respectful distance. These people feared and respected mages, though they had very few of their own. The fear, thought Juvai, was warranted; the respect, he wanted to earn.
At one point, he crossed the front line and saw what would be the battlefield. The war was starting as it always did. Starving raiders from Desidan had ransacked Haelund border farms. Haelund had retaliated and the conflicts had escalated into skirmishes until a sizable force on both sides started to assemble. They forced each other to either side of the great scar canyon and across it they shouted and cursed at each other as their numbers grew.
Soon, the kings would arrive and the full feud would erupt with grievances from generations past being negotiated with spear and axe. This time would be different, though. There were no proper kings to negotiate a ceasefire once the death toll had become difficult to stomach. Instead, Juvai knew, there would be machines, wizardry and a dragon tipping the scales against a lost and misguided boy king who’d just found out that he’d been used by his most trusted adviser.
For now, the seething rabble of the nomads of Desidan sang and shouted and swore and drank, while on the distant side of the chasm, the Haelund armies drilled and marched and planned. The Canifor forces hadn’t yet made their appearance, but Juvai knew that they were just biding their time. Mercutian, Vestin and Delizah had plotted and planned to have them making their glorious and dramatic appearance just in time to rally the Haelund forces as they were being overrun by the hordes of Desidan.
It was evening by the time Juvai brought himself back to his brother, who was now sitting outside the command tent eating the better portion of the flank of a bison. Juvai turned down the offer to join him and slid into the tent to listen. The chiefs of the various war bands had been arguing all day. The news that the king’s assassination, the exile of the crown prince and the ascension of Karle were being orchestrated by a foreign wizard wasn’t sitting well. From what Juvai could gather from the interweaving collection of dialects in the dimly lit tent, Karle was no longer considered the king and wouldn’t be leading the battle. The chiefs were now deciding who would be in charge until the elder brother, Ulrat, was found and crowned. They had agreed that the war wouldn’t wait, but that was about all they could agree on. Now they were boasting until consensus could be reached. That negotiation approach wasn’t to be making much progress and Juvai thought that this might have been Mercutian’s plan all along.
He briefly considered talking them out of fighting altogether. He knew that they probably didn’t stand much of a chance against two full armies and a dragon. He knew that this was all a trap and it would function perfectly well without the mastermind at this point. He also knew that Kish had told them all these things and that unless he felt like vaporizing a couple of them, none would even consider listening to a mage, a youngster, or an outsider. He went to join his brother for dinner.
Theirs was a simple meal compared to the rest of the Desidan horde. Tonight was a night for feasting. Many would be eating their last meal so the fact that there was a massive shortage of food was largely ignored. They drank, ate and reminisced about their lives and families. More than that, they prepared to give themselves to battle.
There was no moon to light the night, and in the starlit darkness a great ceremony was carried out. It was rare for an outsider or a mage to ever see this and Juvai felt privileged, even if he was only an observer. The entire army gathered around a series of bonfires and began to chant. Thousands of naked warriors stood as their tribe’s shaman and seers painted their bodies with vibrant colours and patterns of their various tribal animals. They took on the countenance of the bear, the tiger, the elk, the eagle, the wolf and the jackal. All of them chanted and channelled their spirit toward the focal point of the entire ceremony — the Maiden of Battle.
Kish stood naked in the centre of the entire army. There, the oldest and wisest of the seers painted her flesh with the markings of each tribe. The patterns merged to give her the aspect of a terrible beast. The men would keep their paint tomorrow, but don armour. Kish, however, would wear only the war paint as armour and it would protect her better than any steel.
The chanting became more fervent as they painted her war elk to match. Together they would form a single indivisible monster that would mark the spearhead of the Desidan force. Finally, they bound the sabres of the Battle Maiden to her hands. They were long, straight blades with pieces from the antlers of the first king’s elk for grips. They were stained black as night by the blood of the hundreds that they’d killed in their countless battles.
Juvai was witnessing an incredible event for a scholar of magic, a description that Juvai was surprised to find appropriate for himself. Kish stood as the focal point of belief for ten thousand men. That belief was strong enough and from enough tiny sources that magic began to flow. Their mass belief that the Battle Maiden of Desidor was an invincible embodiment of the spirit of war was made true by their force of will.
As they chanted into the night, the young sorcerer could taste tiny sparks of magic flowing towards the painted princess. The sheer mass of them swirling and manifesting in her started to eclipse even his own power and he was awed by the event.
This was the only reason that Desidan was able to fight toe to toe with the organized and wizard-supported armies of Haelund. This was their magic and it was powerful, albeit crude. Their belief made their Battle Maiden practically untouchable, and as long as she stood, the hordes of undisciplined nomads would fight to the death without fear or doubt. Though as the numbers of warriors fell, so too did the power of their Battle Maiden.
Juvai smiled a little and began to plot. Maybe this army could fight off the Haelund forces; after all, neither had strong leadership at this point. But soon Haelund would be joined by a Canerian army of troops, mercenaries and machines headed by two wizards on a dragon. He would have to find a way to stop them, himself. He took stock of his resources: a legendary cape, himself, and his brother, his trump card, who was singing loudly and badly as he mimicked the chanting throngs.