“Rainy look, look at the birdies!”
“Um, ya, sweetie.” My hand moves to cover Tate's eyes, as the mercenaries lift their bows. “Let's not look at the birdies right now.” Because they're about to get fucked up.
His tiny hands pull at mine and he almost stands atop Zabu, trying to see. Arrows fire out, whistling up into the air at the diving jattuyas, piercing their flesh. A half dozen of them fall out of the sky, fierce resounding cries echoing from the rest, majestic and terrifying. A second volley takes care of the rest, and I watch as they drop, limp and pitiful, crashing to the ground. Little kids shouldn't be watching pretty birds get massacred. They look like glorious red-brown eagles, with a 10 meter wingspan, and sharp beady bird eyes. Of course, they're also mean as fuck, just like almost every other animal in this world. Even the horses are meaner here. Jattuyas live in flocks and like to dive onto travelers, killing a person instantly before flying away, waiting for everyone to leave so they can eat their kill in peace. I watch Tate carefully for his reaction. Poor little child.
He turns to me, eye's wide. “They gonna be lunch, ya?” A big gap toothed smile, at the prospect of something new and possibly tasty. Chuckling, I muss Tate's hair, looking at Tali sitting with Mei Lin in Taduk's rickshaw, who has pretty much the same reaction. Kids are tough, resilient. I guess I don't need to worry too much about them. They know where their meat comes from. I hate eating birds that have been shot out of the sky though. The crashing always breaks their bones, shattering them. Makes for tedious eating, always picking shards out.
“Probably dinner, Tate. We won't stop to cook for lunch. Just some bread and cold meats.” He makes a sour face. I'm not too thrilled either, it's difficult adjusting to travel food after all of the delicious home cooking. I reach into my bag for a longdan fruit, and start cutting it up, well away from Tate, feeding him slices of the crunchy blue flesh.
It's our fourth day on the road and the twins quickly lost their patience with travel. They only threw one tantrum, but only because Charok cut that short abruptly, dangling them each by a leg. He quickly instilled the dangers of making noise while traveling into them, a lesson they won't soon forget. Their daddy is usually the easy going one. Since then, the two little rascals have been quite obedient and well behaved, riding with someone different every time we break. They adapt quickly, almost seeming used to the dangers. I try to keep them entertained with stories, songs, puzzles, and games. It's exhausting.
My streak continues, with 50 days in a row without almost dying. My last few days in the village were devoted to training, Akanai and Baatar stepping up their game. No more sparring with Sumila as that was 'too easy'. Too easy my ass, she beats the shit out of me every time, and looks happy when she's done. Instead, I got to experience the full brutality of every member of the Iron Banner. The 31 strongest warriors of the village, plus Baatar, all taking time out of their last precious days with their families, to beat me black and blue. I felt honored. I shouldn't have. Taduk was on hand every day for healing, and none of them were merciful. Akanai is under the impression I'll learn the moves just by experiencing them, but so far, nothing good has come from it. Hard to figure out what's happening, when I'm always lying on the floor, head spinning, or puking my breakfast out.
I did get to watch them all spar with each other as well, which was interesting. The fight's don't last long, ending very decisively. While they all carry a bow, shield, and short spear, the rest of their gear varies greatly. Some carry glaives and long spears, others have giant swords and hammers. Some are festooned with daggers and short swords, and one even has a chain and sickle. I almost reset the counter after sparring with her, but Tursinai showed me how well she could actually control her weapon. I decided I wasn't ever in danger, that it was just a lesson. I also made a note to not stare at her so much in the baths. She doesn't seem annoyed by it, but anyone that can slice fruit like that from a distance is someone I don't want to piss off.
Most of the mercenaries who rescued me more than 4 years ago have retired, and are living in the village. Gerel is still on the banner, no longer looking as young and fresh faced, a stern adult now, seemingly aged more than his 29 years. He's the scariest one, in my opinion, with his giant glaive and glowing amber eyes. Bald and handsome, always with a neutral expression and a curt tone whenever I talk to him, he seems to live for the banner. They have tournaments every year around the end of winter, fighting for the spots on the Banner, challenges coming from the prospective mercenaries. No one ever chooses to challenge Gerel. Even Baatar gets challenged every year... albeit by Gerel. It's always an epic fight, the two of them dashing around, leaping through the air, weapons clashing. It always ends with Baatar winning though. When the rankings are all sorted out, every members name appears on the banner, like magic. They won't tell me how it works though, just saying it's a secret. Five or six familiar faces remain in the company, but other than that, they're all 'new' faces. They ride in formation around us, guarding us from danger. I've barely had to lift a finger the last few days. Now this, is traveling. I should get a stagecoach or something.
The rest of us consist of a few Sentinels, Akanai, Taduk, Alsantset, all their respective families, as well as some new additions. The new people include a large, stocky, silver haired wolf boy named Huushal, and a slim, sullen looking, tall, dark haired, pretty-boy named Adujan. He has horns that come out from the front of his head, curving back and going straight up, like demon horns, almost 15 cm long, making him look even taller than he already is. I think he's some sort of deer. The horns look uncomfortable, and are pointy enough to take an eye out. Huushal's dad, Chakha the fox-eared carpenter, will be coming to the tournament, along with his wife, Elia the cat-eared baker. Chakha's other wife, bear eared Ghurda, is one of the mercenaries, and actually one of my saviors from four years ago. The three of them are my first, real life confirmation that polygamy exists in the village. I knew that people in the cities would have many wives, but it's kind of a difficult subject to bring up organically. The man has varied tastes in women though, Elia a small, slim, frail looking brunette, and Ghurda a large, fire haired, handsome woman. I respect that.
Adujan, on the other hand, is from the orphanage. There are always more kids than people able to adopt, even with demand as high as it is. The fiercer arch-types, the wolves, cats, bears and whatnot, usually get picked first by the warrior families. Has to do with blood or genetics or something. The rest are slower to be picked, and some never do get a family, growing up at the orphanage and help out doing odd jobs, hoping to get picked up to learn a trade. It's a tough life, but miles better than living in the city slums. The fact that Adujan has been chosen to come on the trip, despite not having a mentor, speaks to how strong he is. I tried to be friendly, but he seems kind of reclusive, quiet around me, even hostile at times.
So with Huushal and Adujan, we are the representatives of the village, including Sumila and myself. The best, of the best, of the best. Not really, I'm sure there are others just as strong, but many young warriors often join the real army, and don't have time for pleasure trips or competitions. It's a sobering thought, 16 year old kids running off to join the war effort. Every year in the spring, a new batch heads off to the city, their families saying farewell, tears in their eyes, trying to seem calm and supportive. Military service is a minimum of 10 years, but you get paid and equipped well compared to farming. It's a tempting thing for the poorer kids, seeing people coming home a hero, decked in honors and medals, with wealth and stories, husbands and wives. They never see the ones that don't come back, that die, screaming, or alone, or cold and hungry, dreaming of home.
After riding all day, Baatar slows down to ride beside me and points up ahead. I follow his finger, lifting Tate to see, just cresting from the horizon, a monumental wall stretching into the distance. Gray and foreboding, crenelated and ugly, a man made construction of massive proportions, still dwarfed by the mountains beside it. Banners cover almost every step of the battlements, indicating factions, sects, schools and clans. A hodgepodge of groups, each vying for their glory, while they stand guard at one of the three most defended points of the continent. The Bridge isn't any man made structure, just what they call the piece of land connecting the Azure Sea Continent to the northern Tundra.
This is where we will part with the Iron Banner, where Baatar and his few chosen warriors go to receive their orders. Most years, they are given an area to patrol, making sure no enemies can slip through the mountains, no local monsters can wreak havoc. This year, they've been chosen to defend the wall, which sounds boring, but is apparently a big honor. Just 32 men in total, among what must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, but they're all famous. Every patrol we encounter salutes the Banner, giving way and allowing us to pass. Respect is shown, deference given. That's my Mentor. My back straightens in my seat, proud at how well he is treated, that so many recognize his strength, and I'm not the only one. Huushal looks like his eyes will pop out, his tail working furiously behind him. Wolf pup idolizing Wolf Captain, it's almost adorable.
The outer walls looms before us as we pass through the gates, a bustling military city sprawling behind them. There's no farmland, the soil is too hard for that, but the infrastructure required to support so many soldiers is impressive to say the least. The outer wall stands 25 meters high and stretches at least five kilometers, the city running parallel to it, a large swathe of empty land between the two with a constant stream of wagons, soldiers, and porters going back and forth. Baatar leads us to a courtyard, very plain and utilitarian, where we will be staying the night. A portly old man waits and a multitude of servants stand ready, helping us unload and taking the quins to be brushed. I really hope Zabu doesn't bite anyone, he's carrying a pup which makes him super defensive. That would be embarrassing. The servant seems well versed with handling quins though, and leads him off gently.
There isn't much for me to do. We're leaving again in the morning, so no point unpacking, and Charok has an army of servants to help him cook. Baatar warns everyone to stay inside our building, but I wasn't going to go anywhere, not in a city full of bloodthirsty soldiers. The average person is irritable enough in this world, I don't really want to tangle with the soldiers. I settle in and play with the twins while we wait for dinner.
“Rainy Rainy, we have time, want us to hit you with sticks some more?” Mei Lin seems to enjoy her role in my training, as she holds the rod in her hand, slapping against her palm. She enjoys it a little too much, if you ask me. I hope it's just because she likes helping me, and not because I've awakened something in her.
“After dinner. If not, I might end up meditating through the meal, and it smells too good to miss.”
“Why not spar with me instead, then?” Huushal ninjas up out of nowhere. For such a big guy, he's awfully sneaky. He's staring at me intently, like he suspects I stole his dinner or something. At 19 year's old, he's the 'oldest' of the four youth representatives. I thought we would send more, but spots are limited it seems. I've never really talked to him before this trip, and he seems kind of angry and intense, just the sort of person I don't get along with. I rack my brain for an excuse.
“That sounds good boy, prepare yourself.” Akanai, pure evil in a gorgeous package. Sighing deeply, I put Tali down and reach for my weapons. “Unarmed combat. Weapons will be too dangerous, we still need to travel.” Great, I get to go bare-knuckle boxing with mini Baatar.
Cheers come from the sides, everyone chanting for their favorite, while they form a loose circle around us. Our support seems to be even, but I like my side better. The high pitched chants of the twins, yelling “Fight! Fight! Fight!” kind of warms my heart. Can't lose in front of the bloodthirsty little monsters, I need to seem strong or they run circles around me.
“You ready, Huushal?” He just grins at me, that not-smile I seem to get so often, and launches himself forward. I slip to the side, palm shooting up, catching him gently by the chin. He's making it way too easy, charging like that, not fast enough, easy to counter. His momentum spent, my foot hooks around his ankle, and I shove him backwards, flinging him to the ground, while I wait for round two. With barely a pause, he leaps back up at me, arms positioned for a tackle. Rolling with the impact, I throw him over my shoulder, roll back with him and landing on my feet and unleashing a punch to his chest. The breath wheezes out of him, and I straighten up and step back. Man, I hope he's better at fighting with his sword. This bull charging business is a terrible tactic without a bigger weapon than your enemy.
Getting up groggily, he turns to face me once more. Arms up, fists clenched. No more charging it seems. At least he learned his lesson. Might as well join him for some boxing. Loosening my shoulders, I take the same stance, as we slowly circle one another, step by step. My head rocks back from a punch too quick for me to even see, like a hammer to the face. A second and third follow, but I duck both and send a fist into his gut. He doesn't even flinch, grabbing me by the shoulder, and he unleashes a gorilla of a punch into my face, the impact ringing my brain like a bell. It's almost unfair how strong he is. I feel the crunch of my nose breaking as he punches me a second time. Fuck this, I'm done playing nice. I headbutt the next punch I see, and am rewarded with a crack and a groan. He releases my shoulder, cradling his broken fist. Grabbing him by the collar, I cock my right fist back. Let's see how he likes getting punched in the face.
“Enough.” Akanai intercedes on his behalf, ending the spar. What the hell? Playing favorites? I didn't see her step in for my broken nose. Taduk walks forward, looking at Huushal's hand, who stands trying to hold back tears. Ya, hurts, doesn't it, bitch? Dragged away by Akanai, she turns to me once we're alone. “Why?”
A bit more information would be useful. “Why, what?” My voice sounds nasal and flat, odd since my nose is broken.
She crosses her arms and looks at me. “Where to begin? Why did you let the fight progress like that? The initial charge, you held back the palm strike. It should have knocked him unconscious. He grossly underestimated you, and you should have made him pay for it. You could have cracked his ribs after countering the tackle, but instead you only struck him once, then stepped back, allowing him to get back to his feet. Finally, you approached an opponent who is larger, stronger, and faster than you, in order to trade blows equally. The worst of it is, you got angry at being punched. You practically asked for it, boy. Why get upset?”
I roll my eyes. “It's sparring. It's for practice. Not brutally beating each other. He broke my nose.”
She stares at me, intensely. “Sparring is a substitute for true combat, between two opponents. When one is more skilled than the other, however, it is a teaching opportunity. You should have taught Huushal, instead you gave him false confidence and broke his hand.” She pokes me on my broken nose. “Reflect on your actions.” That fucking hurts you know.
Wincing as I set my nose, I settle down to heal. Strengthen my nose. That's something I didn't think of. I hope it doesn't swell up and look ridiculous. I don't get the big deal. So what, I was supposed to brutalize him at the beginning? How can he learn from that? Besides, she said it herself, he's bigger, stronger, and faster. Why am I the one who is supposed to teach? Okay, so maybe I lost my temper, but he wasn't holding back those punches at all, hammering away at my face.
When I open my eyes, and Mei Lin is crouching in front of me. She smiles and hands me a bowl she'd been carrying on her lap. Jattuya noodle soup. It's still hot and steaming, a second bowl used as a lid. “Thanks, Mei Lin, you're the best.”
She flicks me on the nose. “Silly. I keep telling you. Call me Lin-Lin.” It's still broken, stop doing that. Ignoring my look, she settles back on her heels. “You're too nice to people Rainy. Even during fights. That's dangerous, it can get people killed.” The no mercy attitude. I get that, I do. Kill or be killed, I learned my lesson in the city.
“It was just a spar, Mei Lin.” I slurp my dinner, chewing on the tender meat. “I didn't want to hurt him.”
“But you did, Rainy.”
Turning to spit out some bird-bone shards, I reply, “His hand wouldn't have broken if he wasn't punching so hard.”
“Not the broken hand, Rainy.” She looks solemn. “You let him think his approach to the fight was a good one. He thinks he was winning, and that you got lucky. That he's tough enough to go charging at his enemies, without worry.” She watches me eat and think on her words. Damn it. She's right. It's the same thing Akanai was saying, but I tend to disagree with her just on instinct. If Huushal does something like that against an enemy, he'll die in a heartbeat. I guess I'm not doing him any favors, by going easy or losing my temper. Four mistakes on his part and he didn't learn anything from them.
“I guess I should go apologize? And what, fight him again?” I have no idea what to do now.
Giggling at me, she replies. “I knew you'd understand. No need to apologize, and you can't fight him again, his hand is broken, silly. We have another spar lined up for you, this time, against Ghurda. Show Huu-Huu how strong you really are, ya? He won't listen like you do.”
God dammit. Ghurda is probably going to be angry about the broken hand. She's gonna make me throw up again. Sighing deeply, I set the rest of the soup aside and stand, walking forward to take my punishment.
I should have just knocked him out. This is what I get for trying to be nice. “Hey, don't let the twins watch, okay?”