Nyra woke up again before the camp horn had sounded. Lying on her back on the simple cot, she watched the gentle curves of the cream and red canvas that was her pavilion’s ceiling. She cleared the night from her mind with a sigh, and with it, welcomed her companion that walked with her every day, and had been with her since she had been a little girl. The responsibility for others, transformed into the responsibility of command.
She pushed herself up and swept her bare feet to cowhides that covered the floor. Her own pavilion was the only luxury she allowed herself, the only thing separating her from the men and women fighting with her. It was a round space, eight strides across, one and a half high at the sides and four at the center. Within everything was as always: her bed, a few caskets and trunks, a number of candles and torches, a round and polished darkwood table with six stools, a tall wash basin and a mirror beside it, hanging by a stand. Dawning light willed itself through the pavilion canvas, and two large candles were burning safely inside a lantern, providing a warm illumination.
It was her home on the road, and her hideout. Her safe haven.
She walked to the basin, pulled off her long, loose white shirt and splashed cold but fresh water to her face. Cupping her palms, she took some and drank it eagerly. She was covered in sweat. She had seen her dream again last night. The dream of her destiny. Her ultimate victory. The dream both exhilarated and terrified her.
How easy is it to lead and win when you fought phantasms of a vision with an army of make-believe, she mused. How easy was it to be confident in a dream.
The mirror behind the basin, a few feet tall and one wide, reflected her, and she met her own gaze in it.
“A new day, Sunn”, she told herself, “to do glory to our goddess.”
The Daughter in Steel. From nowhere surfaced a nickname some fool had given her after she had won a major battle against the hordes of Abyss. She shook her head slowly in denial and beads of water dripped back to the basin. It had been a close call, that battle. She had lost too many of her friends and brothers and sisters in arms, and the regret weighed on her like a barrel full of stones. The victory had been sour and felt like a defeat, but someone had given her a nickname to celebrate her success and it had stuck. Damned fools.
“Are you of steel?” She asked herself in the mirror.
A woman, young yet much-traveled, looked back. A colored tattoo of a longsword surrounded by the sun bursting its rays covered her left breast, just above the heart. Names of friends long lost were etched in black with tiny letters into her pale skin. The list started from her left shoulder and ended halfway down her arm. Years of war and constant traveling had sculpted her strong and lithe. But her visage was deceptive. Many had called her beautiful, admiring her delicate neck, chin, and jaw, high cheekbones, and hair that was red and brown like a sunset and swept to her neck. But her brow was low and her dark eyes narrow and always serious, hiding a soul older than her years. What had that one lesser demon called her before she had rammed her blade through its mouth?
“Are you”, she repeated the question.
A small leather purse lied on the edge of the basin. Nyra took it to her hand, eased its strings open and let its contents fall onto her open palm. Several crystals, white and faintly translucent, like oversized bits of sea salt, glittered there. She took one between her fingers and raised it to her mouth. Her arm stirred as she hesitated.
Not today. I don’t need it today.
Sighing, she dropped the tiny crystal and returned them all into the little purse before pulling its mouth shut.
The cover that was the door into the pavilion was swept open and yellow morning light flooded the interior. Nyra hid the purse in her grip.
A lanky young man, a boy really, past sixteen, crouched and entered, carefully carrying a wooden plate filled with neatly cut dried meats, cheeses, vegetables, bread and some fruits.
“My lady”, he said in a greeting and went silent as he saw his commander naked, leaning against the basin with both hands. He immediately lowered his gaze, mumbled an apology and started to retreat.
“Edvor, it is all right”, Nyra said calmly without moving, watching him through the mirror.
“.. your breakfast.”
“Put it on the table.”
Outside, the war horn bellowed, signaling the beginning of a new day and waking the camp. Edvor nodded hastily and keeping his non-existing chin down, hurried to the table.
“My lady”, he nodded again after placing the tray down and almost ran out of the pavilion.
Edvor of Kataresh, the tall, clumsy and shy young Taldan was of noble blood. He could have become a baron if his father wouldn’t have hated and despised him so.
He’s a girlish boy, weak-willed, spineless and without drive, his father had bemoaned to her when she and her retinue had come to visit him in his keep. As a woman the way the baron had associated girls with weakness had offended her greatly, as had his contempt of his own blood, so she had challenged the baron’s champion to a duel. The bets: Edvor against a coffer of gold. The combat had been brief, and she had walked out of the baron’s keep with his son in tow.
It’s all about finding your passion, she had told Edvor afterward. You cannot aspire to be a better person if you don’t know what you want to be. Edvor was hardly a fighter, but he had a sharp mind and an excellent memory – when he wanted to use them. But it hadn’t taken Nyra a long time to find a source of motivation that pushed the boy forward. With her help, he had found faith. In a crusading company entirely dedicated to Her name and glory, Edvor of Kataresh was now one of the most devout followers of Iomedae. Serving now as Nyra’s servant, scribe, and logistician, he had never been as happy.
Nyra dried the last of the waterdrops off her skin and went to dress. On a wooden trunk, there was a neat pile of clothes – a white tunic with laces and heraldic markings, tights, belt, socks, and underclothes. On a rack awaited a full set of heavy plate of gleaming steel, a mail to be worn underneath the plate, a round shield with the sunburst and sword painted on it, and an ancient, enchanted longsword. Nyra left the armor hanging, clothed herself and went to break her fast. Edvor had left the food tray next to a large map that illustrated the region around Lake Encarthan, a five-hundred mile wide body of sweetwater that should’ve been called a sea. A small ivory figurine stood on the map, at the north-eastern corner of a land called Molthune. It was a little armored angel with massive spread wings that was taking to the air, only one foot touching the base, and held her longsword high. Nyra took a handful of berries and started eating in silence, watching the figurine, lost in her thoughts.
Barked orders and sounds of feet stomping earth to a beat emanated from outside. She disregarded them as to her they were normal background noise, something she had grown accustomed to in the past years. As she ate, Nyra poked with a free hand the figurine across the map, towards south and west, until it stopped on a dot that marked the capital of Molthune, Canorate.
Soon, she thought to herself. And what then? What should I do? Pray tell me, my goddess. What is the darkness I must confront? Where are the warrior-brothers?
Iomedae offered her no answers.
Nyra emerged from her pavilion combat-ready in her plate, her ancient, blessed blade sheathed in a scabbard at the hip, shield slung over her red-caped back, the helmet in the nook of her arm. She squinted as her eyes adjusted to brightness of the rising sun. It was going to be a beautiful, cloudless day. A good day for marching.
The war camp was alive around her. Groups of similarly armored figures marched past, each man and woman nodding and smiling to her as they went, and muttering a greeting or calling her name. Nyra nodded in reply. She started left, walking on grass that had been trampled brown by countless boots. The captain of the crusader company passed dozens of smaller tents and pavilions, organized in orderly rows. Proper organization was something Nyra consistently demanded of her subordinates, whether they were on the road or in an active warzone. Organization meant efficiency, and efficiency meant fewer unnecessary deaths.
A number of the tents were being taken down and stowed into wagons. The 126th Augustana was a cavalry unit of half a thousand holy warriors sworn to the service of goddess Iomedae, so it required a lot of support and a lot of wagons in addition to hundreds of horses. This made the camp itself a small town. And now the small town was preparing to continue its journey.
As much as Nyra was inspecting her forces, she was also looking for her seconds-in-command. She didn’t have to look for them for long and she found them at the edge of the camp, close to the main guard post.
A knight older than Nyra, in an ivory breastplate and iron-grey mail, a crimson cape that reached the back of her knees, and a white tabard with the sword and sunburst, was talking to a catfolk female using sign-language. The latter had chosen boiled leather for protection, as it allowed the imposing biped tigress more freedom of movement than heavy steel plating, and it better suited her tasks as company scout. Still, she wore a similar tabard to the paladin.
As she walked closer, Nyra cleared her throat. “Jocelyn, Shevar, when are we ready to continue”, she asked and made her presence known, and it made the two turn towards her. They both bowed their heads in reverence before the paladin spoke.
“My lady, in two hours, but-.”
The big feline hissed.
<Something in your mind> Nyra signed, her gauntleted fingers moving deftly. She had to look up, as the tigress was easily two heads taller than her. And twice as heavy, even with the lighter armor.
<My lady – our cleric is still at the nearby village, helping with the labor of the town elder’s daughter. We don’t know when he can return.> The catfolk’s clawed fingers worked the signs just as nimbly as human hands, and she bared her sharp predator’s teeth to emphasize her irritation.
The people of Tyne’s Deep had welcomed the 126th Augustana with open arms. It helped that the crusader company could provide for its own supplies – thanks to ample resources it carried and some magic and the grace of their goddess – so the poor villagers hadn’t had to scrape the bottom of the barrels to feed several hundred souls and as many horses. Still, they had offered the holy warriors beds and roofs over their heads. The company preferred their camp, but it had been a kind gesture. Cleric Tresh Stormborn had wanted to return the kindness by spending the day in their village, healing the sick and blessing their children. And when he had heard that the village elder’s daughter had gone into labor, the former surgeon had simply refused the order to return to camp.
Nyra smiled. “So we’ll wait then”, she said, switching to spoken Common. Iomedae wanted her in Canorate, but Nyra thought She’d allow Her followers a moment to do the good deed and spread the word of Her holiness on the way. And the city was only a few days’ ride away anyway.
The older knight didn’t look surprised – indeed, there was a hint of amusement that passed her hawkish face like a drifting shadow of a cloud.
“As you say, my lady.”
The tigress hissed but bowed her head in deference.
“Come on now, Shevar, you can head out and make sure the road is clear”, Nyra told the towering catfolk female, and her furred shoulders of orange, white and black relaxed a bit.
<With your permission>, she signed.
<Go>, her commander ordered and waved her away. Shevar turned and prowled off.
Jocelyn shook her head at the tigress who was already getting up to her horse. “She’s tense. Abnormally so.”
Nyra sighed. Who wasn’t? “She’s been tense since we turned and left towards Canorate.”
“Still. She says she’s smelling something rotten, something she doesn’t like, that grows stronger every day we approach the city.”
The experienced scout-master had not taken Nyra’s news of turning aside from the road to Worldwound lightly, as hadn’t Jocelyn. Shevar had been as vocal as she had dared in her complaints. But her commander was Nyra Sunn, the Hero of Nerosyan, the Blight of the Abyss. She had had visions from their goddess. Who was she, a simple soldier of faith, to argue a god-touched paladin? She went where her commander told her.
“How did you sleep, my lady?” Jocelyn asked Nyra. Nyra frowned, not at her second-in-command but herself. At a weak moment, she had admitted to Jocelyn having problems sleeping. She had had nightmares of the previous campaign and of losing so many friends in battle, despite all the magic and favor of Iomedae at her disposal. The company had lost two-thirds of its strength, and that’s why she had returned far south to her home city in the first place, to replenish her company. However last night she had slept well – when she finally had dozed off.
“Reasonably well”, she replied, unable to mask the weariness in her voice. Jocelyn pursed her already thin lips but said nothing. She knew when to share her concerns with her commander and when not. She had trust in Nyra.
As First Lance-Commander Jocelyn Rhediax led the first of the company’s five hundred-strong platoons and was and a sword of faith to the core – broad-shouldered and muscled, strong-jawed and hawkish, keeping her onyx-black hair short. A decade older than Nyra, she had fought alongside Nyra for years. Nyra considered her a friend, one of the few remaining. Jocelyn had maybe once when they had been of equal rank, held deeper feelings for her, but Nyra had consciously not given her any indications of those feelings being mutual. But at the end of the day, Nyra appreciated her concern for her wellbeing, even if Nyra didn’t realize it herself.
“I’ll sleep better when we reach Canorate”, she added, trying a smile. The First Lance-Commander rolled her eyes disbelievingly. In addition to Shevar, she was the only one in the company who could do it to Nyra’s face, even if she did it very rarely.
The god-touched paladin-commander spotted a cloud of dust on the horizon, across a field of oat.
“Guests”, she said aloud. Jocelyn turned to watch, as did a number of other holy warriors who manned the guard post.
“In a hurry”, Jocelyn added.
A dozen or so riders approached the camp, driving their mounts hard. They were soldiers, Nyra realized and a frown appeared on her brow.
She had wondered when they’d show up.
“Well, we got this far”, her second-in-command grunted. “Eight days inside their borders. I would’ve believed the famed Molthuni Imperial Army would’ve reacted faster.”
“They have their hands full with the Nirmathi.”
As the group of Molthuni reached the edge of the camp, Jocelyn stepped forward and waved at them. Officers of 126th Augustana wore hardly any insignia that distinguished them from line troops, so outsiders had a hard time finding and identifying superiors.
One of the Molthuni horsemen trotted to the First Lance-Commander.
“Who’s in charge here”, the red-bearded man, a captain, asked her with a scowl. Standing a few strides behind Jocelyn, Nyra disregarded the captain and instead focused on the rider behind him. She looked noble but worn. She had evidently spent the night on the road. Still, she carried herself with dignity and wore a rich, ornate uniform of dark green with gilded buttons. A red sash was crossed her chest from the shoulder to her waist. She didn’t wear any weapons, as she was high-ranking enough to need none. The soldiers around her were her blade.
“State your purpose”, Jocelyn demanded in response, using her gruff command voice and stared at the captain.
Nyra paced abreast and set her gauntleted hand on her shoulder. “It’s all right, First Lance-Commander.” Jocelyn crossed her arms over her chest.
“I am Nyra Sunn, Crusade Commander of 126th Augustana, sworn to her Brightness, our Lady Iomedae. I am in charge here.”
Nyra had born with a voice that both made her sound younger than her years and vibrated slightly when she became anxious or nervous, or when she talked about something important to her. She hated her voice and often wondered how she could talk anyone into something, nevermind how she had ever talked anyone to join her cause. You lead by example, a dead friend had told her once.
I should’ve taken the crystal this morning.
The red-bearded captain glanced over her shoulder at the high-ranking lady. She nodded to him and led her mount forward.
“Good morning, Crusade Commander”, she said softly. Her voice was as dark and rich as her skin. Nyra tipped her head for a greeting, feeling a pang of jealousy.
“I am Imperial Castellan Pia Hemdor of Canorate and the Imperial Castle.”
“Honored, Imperial Castellan”, Nyra extended the nod into a bow. She had to be careful with her – Castellan of the Imperial Castle was only one step from the General Lords themselves, who were the top brass of the entire nation. The Imperial Governor – overlord of the military oligarchy – was selected from their ranks. She was surprised Hemdor had ridden all the way from Canorate herself to inspect the small force that had crossed into her lands. This was clearly serious to her – she wanted to make an impression.
“I might ask you the same question as your First Lance-Commander”, Hemdor stated. Her voice remained steady but she tried to dissect Nyra with her piercing gaze. Another blade of hers, Nyra mused.
“Our crusade company is passing the region on their way to Worldwound”, Nyra explained. “My lord”, she added.
The Castellan let out a laugh. “Worldwound is north, Crusade Commander Sunn. You take a peculiar route.” She stopped to clear her throat. “Now, Sunn, show some respect and be honest. Why is..”, she glanced around, “a cavalry force five-hundred strong riding southwest towards our capital? Do you want supplies? Recruits to fight and die in your holy war?”
Nyra considered her words. Crusaders under goddess Iomedae’s banner were known to be orderly and civil, so it was a sign of trust that Hemdor had ridden with such a small contingent of her troops to meet her – if she would’ve been afraid they were going to plunder the lands, she’d come with an army. But could Nyra trust the General Lord with the truth? Could she tell anything but the truth?
Nyra came to a distressing conclusion that she hadn’t really planned how to explain herself to the leaders of Molthune.
No time to blame yourself now. She clenched her jaw. Maybe later.
“Well?” Hemdor was not a patient woman.
“I have a reason to believe Canorate might be in danger”, Nyra said.
The Castellan raised her brow. “In danger? By whom, or what?”
Nyra opened her mouth to reply. She didn’t know what to say. Her vision had been.. unclear.
“A foreign threat”, she finally uttered.
Hemdor’s dissecting eyes narrowed. “A.. foreign threat”, she said smoothly, tasting the words. “Your ambiguity is unhelpful, Commander Sunn. We are at war with the Nirmathi, but those rebels are nothing but cowards who hide in their dark, thick forests. I don’t believe they would threaten our capital.”
Nyra kept her mouth.
“Our borders with Nidal, Cheliax, Isger, and Druma are silent”, Hemdor listed the nations. “They’ve no reason to attack us.”
Darkness approaches the nation of Molthune, her goddess had told Nyra in her dream.
“That leaves assassins and other external agents that would wish to meddle with the affairs of our nation. You are Andoran, yes? We’ve had reports of filthy Andorans fighting alongside the Nirmathi. Or maybe you wish to shove your democratic Common Rule down our throats? Challenge our superior order and incite a slave revolt?”
“I have been granted the warning from Iomedae herself.” That was all Nyra could tell. She cursed herself. She cursed her clear voice that lent her little authority.
“From her Brightness herself”, the Castellan repeated and a sneer crept to her lips. “You’ll pardon my lack of respect but I bow to Gorum and the Lord in Iron speaks plainly in terms of battle. I had imagined Iomedae would guide her followers into the light rather than let them wander in the shadows of uncertainty like blind fools.”
Nyra could sense Jocelyn stiffening at her side, her pride wounded by the Castellan. Had their guest been anyone else, the First Lance-Commander would have drawn her sword.
Hemdor noticed it as well and all her false, sarcastic levity evaporated in an instant.
“Let me tell you something. The Imperial Army allows the soldiers of Iomedae to travel through Molthune unopposed. I do not like it, but I respect the Imperial Governor’s decision on the matter. However, I am personally tasked with the security of Canorate and its surroundings. If you and your company even appear to be planning something that endangers that security, I will march the Imperial Army out of the city gates and annihilate you to the last soldier.”
She reined her stallion around.
“I suggest, Commander Sunn, that you take your company and head to north to the port city of Eranmas, where you can hire yourself some ships to take you to Ustalav. If you come closer to Canorate, I might deem that as something threatening. And that, Commander, will not be something you want to happen. Good day.”
Hemdor didn’t stay to hear Nyra’s reply but commanded her troops to depart. They left with the same haste as they had arrived.
“Well that complicates things”, Jocelyn sighed after a moment. Nyra stared blankly at the receding Molthuni. She had been threatened before. And she still had a mission to complete.
“This changes nothing”, she whispered, her voice trembling.