Warning: the material below contains some mature language.
“You know, we’re all going to die,” Minoru said, as he carved his name into the mud with tip of his spear.
Matashichi banged his friend’s shoulder with the shaft of his own. “Now why would you say a stupid thing like that?”
Minoru peered glumly at Matashichi from under his oversized helm. The rust that covered his makeshift armor made him look like a beached crab and his sullen eyes were black against his tawny soot-covered skin.
“Of course, we’re going to die,” Matashichi continued. “Look at us. We’ve be conscripted into an army led by that Bastard Dauphin of D’Orloins. The same bastard who allowed his industrial base to come under siege by an overwhelming enemy force. Now we’re the only ones standing in the way of said enemy force from being resupplied by 3000 wagons and utterly destroying the remaining city held by the Dauphin. In a few minutes, we’ll be dead and our families will be speaking Fiorese as they mop their masters’ floors and clean their toilets. That’s our plight. Why do you think I stopped off at the whorehouse in Muckville right after we got our orders? I don’t expect we’ll see another morning.”
“But the Dauphin’s won before, right?”
Matashichi grunted and adjusted his own pie plate helm and scratched the scraggly patchwork beard. “You should have come with me to the whorehouse.”
Before them, the Fiorian generals had already spotted the Orloinian forces approaching and had ample time to turn their wagon train into fortifications. The opportunity for surprise had been lost by the sluggishness of their leaders. The Dauphin could not be bothered to get up before noon. Now the empty plain before them would become a killing ground. “Lord knows how he’s done it. But dumb luck eventually runs out.”
Just then, a horn sounded and the ragged bunch of peasant conscripts hastily tried to form a line. Minoru heard the thumping of hooves from behind him and was about to complain about another pompous nobleman awarded a field promotion when he caught sight of the rider. A small woman with flowing red hair galloped atop a black horse. She bore the banner not of the Dauphin but a strange exotically marked flag. Even beneath the chain mail and thick leather, Minoru could tell she was a woman of extraordinary beauty. She held her chin high and defiantly but her soft eyes darted uncertainly about her, from the row of motley men to the wall of wagons across the field of battle.
“Who’s that?” Minoru said. “A woman on the battlefield? Am I hallucinating?”
“If you’re hallucinating, then so am I, or we’re both already dead and being led to the fields of Elysia with the other dead men walking.”
The woman turned her horse abruptly towards the bedraggled rows of Dauphin’s men and raised her banner high above her head to gain their attention. But she needn’t have done that. The rabble was awed into silence.
“Should we salute her?” Minoru muttered.
“You already are,” Matashichi spat back. “With your manhood.”
Minoru ignored his friend’s coarse jest. Staring up at the wondrous maiden stretching her arms forth atop her glistening black steed, the other man quickly regretted his words. Her figure was slight and girlish but on her bare head she wore her hair short like a boy’s. Her expression was stern and driven, but her eyes were softened by a look of compassion as she surveyed the carnage on the battlefield. Though her head and face were unprotected, she wore chain mail under a clean white chemise.
After a moment she spun round on her horse and called out to the unwashed masses before her in a calm, resounding voice. “We will win this day. Follow me!”
Then she turned back towards the waiting foe, spurred on her steed and started galloping towards the waiting enemy line.
Minoru turned to his friend. “I don’t know who she is,” he said in hushed. “But I think I want to follow her.”
Mesmerized, by what, he was unsure, Matashichi muttered under his breathe. “So do I, Mini… so do I.”
Suddenly, a roar rose up among the rank and file, and like the swelling of a wave, the mass of soldiers burst into a desperate run towards enemy fortifications. The ragged line of men swept across the no man’s land and it was only moments before the report of cannons could be heard from behind the Fiorese lines. Matashichi and Minoru gave each other puzzled looks and then Minoru screamed at the top of his lungs. His voice sounded like a strangled rat but Matashichi raised his pike and the two began running madly after their cohorts. Already, they had fallen far behind the majority of the soldiers and the horse bearing the young maiden. Matashichi was quickly reduced to a waddle under the burden of his impractically burdensome armor.
“This is insanity!” Matashichi screamed.
“I know!” Minoru replied.
The howls of incoming shells could be heard seconds before the ground shook and dozens of men disappeared in an immense cloud of dust and cinder. Then, it happened again, and again. Still, the maiden rode onward and the men followed slavishly towards the enemy lines and their deaths. The exploding shells came at deafening, soul crushing rhythm.
By the time the two men reached within a few hundred yards of the entrenched Fiorese defenders, they could see the flash of muskets and hear the buzz of the miniballs through the roiling air. It wasn’t long before they realized they had caught up with the forward advance of their line. Already, it had been picked apart. Men and body parts lay strewn on the ground amidst craters large enough to lose an oxen. A few were crying for their mothers.
The maiden had dismounted about fifty feet away from them and had gone to the aid of one of the soldiers as the Fiorese took pot shots at her. Her bright white tunic, which had been clean before, was now streaked with crimson.
“We’re doomed!” Minoru said, stumbling to his knees.
Matashichi, out of breath, gasped and fell beside his friend. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”
They heard a whistle of an incoming shell and Minoru whimpered. “It’s for us,” he said, moments before a deafening blast picked up the two peasants and sent them hurtling twenty feet into the air. Matashichi grabbed his friend by the tunic and clung blindly to them as they tumbled head over heels. They landed in a crater nearby. Matashichi felt something snap inside his back, as Minoru crashed headfirst into his chest. It was several minutes before either man was able to speak.
“Minoru,” Matashichi said, when he was sure he was still alive. “Minoru, are you alive? Answer me, you lazy shit!”
Minoru moaned, but Matashichi could barely hear it, even though the tiny man’s lips were mere inches from his left ear. The blast must have damaged his ear drums, he realized. He tried to push Minoru off him but his friend was limp as a rotten bean and his arms ached from the impact with the ground. On top of that, he wasn’t sure if he could feel his legs. Everything below his neck felt dull and throbbing, which made him panicked.
“Mini, get off of me!”
As though finally waking from a deep slumber, Minoru rose slightly and then slumped over. Momentum allowed him to slide off Matashichi’s chest plate and come to rest face up beside him.
“We’re dead!” Minoru mumbled. “I can see heaven at last.”
Matashichi cried out in pain as he tried to hoist himself up by his arms, then fell back onto the ground. His pie plate helmet flopped over his eyes and crushed his nose.
“Why is heaven so dark and grey?” Minoru continued. “My gods, we’ve gone to the third hell! Our suffering will never end.”
Furiously, Matashichi undid the strap of his helmet and tore it off, slapping Minoru across the face as he did so. “We’re not dead yet, you moron. We just wish we were. I think my back is broken. Shit!”
“We’re not dead,” Minoru said, with a slight chuckle of realization. “Wait a minute, do you hear that?”
“I’m half deaf from that blast, you idiot. I can hardly hear anything.”
Matashichi humored his friend and strained to listen for whatever Minoru expected him to hear through his bruised ears. When the ringing subsided, all that was left was silence. “I don’t hear anything,” he finally said.
“Then why—” Matashichi began to say, when it finally struck him what his friend was getting at. Silence. No movement. No bombs or guns. Had the slaughter finally ended. All their cohorts must be dead.
“I have to get up. I have to see.”
Minoru willed himself to sit up. He feebly got up on all fours and began to crawl up the side of the crater. Matashichi watched him warily.
“What are you doing?” he said. “If there are snipers waiting, they’ll blow your head off. Get back down here. If they think we’re dead, maybe they’ll leave us alone or just take us as prisoners of war.”
“I have to see.”
When Minoru reached the lip of the crater, he observed a battlefield transformed. Some of the Orloinian soldiers were climbing the enemy barricades. Others were milling about confusedly. One man, who apparently had an arm blown off, seemed to be searching the ground for something, perhaps his missing limb. Then he crouched and retrieved it from the ground. Dazed, he lifted the bloodied piece of meat to his stump as if he were trying to reattach it somehow. Minoru watched in awe as the man the main tried to force the dead arm into his tattered sleeve.
Then, he caught sight of the maiden. She had been stooping over another Orloinian when she spotted the armless one as well. She placed a hand gently on the man’s shoulder and took the arm from him. The man stared glassy-eyed at her as she carefully reattached the arm to his body. Minoru watched in astonishment as the man began to flex the hand of the reattached arm. The maiden whispered something to the man and he nodded, picked up a sword with his renewed arm and charged towards the barricades.
The maiden towards Minoru, cowering at the edge of the crater. Their eyes met briefly and the young woman approached him. He could see now that though her clothes had been soaked in blood, she appeared to be unharmed. In fact, she seemed to be surrounded by a glow like a pale moonlight. Instinctively, he slid back down the side of the crater to hide from view of this strange and frightening woman.
“By Gods, she’s a witch,” Minoru said.
“Who’s a witch?” Matashichi grunted. “I can’t see a damned thing. What witch?”
“The maiden on the horse,” Minoru said. “The one who was leading the charge.”
Matashichi grunted again, uncomprehending. Before he had a chance to complain again, however, the maiden appeared at the edge of the crater and he too saw her. She was directly looking at them. She has a vision of beauty, even in dressed in the gory rags of war.
“Come with me, men,” she said. “You will be safe.”
“I can’t move, ma’am,” Matashichi said, suddenly struck with awe. “My back. I think it’s broken.”
“It is not. Come. Rise.”
She waved her hand and Matashichi felt a surge of warmth spring up through his feet, up his back and into his throat and face. He found that he could wiggle his toes and sprang to his feet with surprising ease.
“Come,” she said again. “You’ve no need to be afraid.”
Overcoming their apprehension towards the maiden, the two peasant soldiers scrambled out of the crater and surveyed the battlefield.
“What are your names, sirs?” the maiden asked.
“I’m Minoru and he’s Matashichi, ma’am,” Minoru said.
“Where is the enemy? What happened here?” Matashichi said, looking wearily about the still field and Fiorese battlements, empty but for a few of the Dauphin’s men who were now celebrating atop them with hearty cheers.
“Can’t you tell?” she said and added a sly smile. “We’ve won the battle, of course. The Fiorese have fled the field.”
The first dream Necron had of his daughter was of her as a maiden, riding a black horse. She was traveling with an army: a camp follower. When he awoke, bathed in sweat, he ran straight from the bed to his brother Jon’s house. There he found Jon and his other brother Michel and told them the dream and that if it ever happened, he would ask them to drown his daughter. If they refused, he would do it himself. Afterwards, he left his dumbfounded brothers in silence and went back home.
He said nothing to his 8-year-old daughter directly, but told her mother later that evening and she relayed it to her. A father fears for his daughter’s virtue, her mother told her when she asked what would cause her father to act so violently. It is more precious than her life in this world. Her mother lamented that she could not have brought her daughter into a better world, where the life of every young child mattered most. But her daughter comforted her mother and said: “Life is just a breath. What we do with that breath is the greatest value.”
As a fief of the local demesne, Count Arbor, Matashichi toiled in their lord’s personal farmland two days a week, in addition to their own farms every other day. In return for their labors, the two peasants received lunch served with fresh bread and a strong ale, which kept their bellies warm against the cold of the afternoon, assuming the count was in a generous mood. If not, they would receive a lunch with watery gruel that retained the flavor of the raw sewage it was born from. But even the warm bread, which was served with the smiles of the buxom serving girls, was meager compensation for the sting of the northern winds against bare flesh and the kick of a heavy iron plow against an already aching shoulder. And it was growing worse every year as the winters grew harsher and the springs and even summers brought no respite from the unremitting cold and the fields turned to slop in the often icy monsoon rains.
One day, as Matashichi examined the stooped rows of emaciated corn and bean plants, he felt the rumble of his empty stomach and finally decided he had enough. He threw down his hoe anger, only to have the long handle drop loudly and painfully on his foot.
“Gods be damned!” he exclaimed to no one in particular. “First they send us years of drought and heat and now this fucking cold and moisture. Every year, it’s the same shit, only different. And these sickly things aren’t going to produce enough food to feed a dead gerbil, let alone the village for a year. I’ve had it. I’m done!”
Minoru had been crouching over his row of beans, picking at the weeds with his fingers. Now he raised his head and shook his head disapprovingly. “What’s gotten into you anyways?” he said. “Don’t you know they haven’t served lunch yet. If you keep whining like that, we won’t even get the gruel we’re promised and the count’s liable to have us locked up.”
“Lock me up then. I don’t give a shit,” Matashichi said. “Better to be cold and asleep indoors than cold and working my ass end off for some lord who’s never dirtied his hands a day in his life and tells me how much better he is than me.”
“Then go back to your farm and work there. Leave me in peace.”
“I would. But shit ain’t growing there either.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“Your farm ain’t no better.”
Minoru’s head dropped. “Why is this happening to us? My children go to bed hungry and I have sores on my hand. Every year it takes longer to grow the same amount of food. Did we do something wrong?”
“Like be born?” Matashichi spat. “No, we’re doing great. We’ll be rich before the season’s out.”
Minoru tossed a hand full of weeds on the ground and his lip quivered. “There’s no need to be mean about it. But what can we can do but farm until we all drop dead of starvation?”
Matashichi scratched his chin and looked up at the sky. The clouds were leaden and barely allowed for a dull light to penetrate the oppressive gloom. “Well, those cutthroats in Vagran don’t seem to be hurting for eats, and I’m told they’ve got a little coin in their pocket to boot. It seems the Dauphin will take anyone who can hold a sword or pull a trigger.”
“You want to hire yourself out as a sell-sword?” Minoru said. “But you could be killed. You could leave your wife a widow!”
Matashichi pointed to the sodden ground. “And you don’t think this will kill us? Between the lack of food, the sickening water and the grippe and the bandits stealing and raping and murdering, we might die anyways. At least, if we’re soldiers we can learn to fight and so no one will be able to take what’s ours and we might enjoy some comfort.”
Minoru scrunched his face as though he was pondering a great mystery of the universe. He looked momentarily at his other hand still clenching a fistful of muddy weeds. He threw that wad of plants to the ground and placed his dirty hands at his hips. “How do we sign up?”
“Simple. We take what we can carry and head for the capitol.”
“But we have no weapons. Why would the Dauphin enlist a pair of unarmed peasants.”
Matashichi looked around hastily. He picked up Minoru’s hoe and bent the metal spade at the end under the weight of his boot until it flattened into an extra broad spearhead. “We’ll beat our ploughshares into bloody swords,” he growled.