Like Toy Soldiers...
“You are the vainest warrior I have ever known,” Willow complained cheerfully.
“Thank you,” Shahin smiled. “Pass me that vambrace, would you?” Grinning, the girl complied.
“At this rate, you’ll still be getting dressed when the monsters show up.” Her gibe had no heat in it; by this point, despite being nominally of different generations, the two were old friends. Fifteen years barely mattered in the face of decades, after all, and Willow had borne one of Shahin’s favorite grandchildren.
“They won’t be here until an hour before sunset. It’s barely noon.”
“If you’re so sure of that, why are you getting armored up now?” She buckled the leather wrist-covers without being asked, as she taunted her.
“Might as well look good while I wait.” And, besides…
“And, besides, you might have missed something.”
“Exactly,” she acknowledged. Her ability to foresee battles had become very well-honed, but an error could cost them so much, and no-one’s magic was quite the same as it had been, Before.
“When do the witch-burners get here, then?”
“Tomorrow morning.” She paced the confines of her wagon – who would have thought she’d end up touring the continent in a horse-drawn vardo, battle-scarred and sunburnt? – working the nerves out of her system before she faced the rest of their group.
This one had the potential to be a bad one: an old-school demigod and its followers, powerful and apparently shameless. Her war band had only the element of surprise on their side - that, and a family proclivity towards conflagration – and had to be done and gone before the witch-hunters arrived.
“I used to think scaring the straights was entertaining,” she murmured. “Of course, I was fifteen at the time…”
“Pardon?” Glancing back at Willow’s perplexed expression, Shahin remembered the girl had been younger than that when the world ended.
“Normal humans. I mean, back when I thought I was human, too, and they thought I was kind of strange and out there.”
“You are kind of strange and out there.”
“Thank you. Don’t forget ‘vain.’” She smiled wistfully. “But this was over a decade before the Return, remember – normal human beings didn’t know anything about the Ellehemaei.” She glanced sidelong at the girl. “You remember your childhood, don’t you?”
“Bits and pieces,” she shrugged. “I remember hanging out with my dad, and going to school. I was always a bit of a tomboy, I guess.” She blinked in sudden comprehension. “Aah, like that. Playing it up.”
“Exactly.” She glanced down at the black-and-ice-blue leather armor she’d donned. “I guess I never really outgrew that.”
Willow laughed. “No, not really. But I know what you mean now. Back then, well, they were bigger than us, or at least on par, and they outnumbered us.”
“They still outnumber us.” She smirked wryly upwards – the younger warrior was almost half a foot taller than her. “But they weren’t trying to kill us, back then.” The witch-hunters that would be here tomorrow would be as hot for their blood as for the monsters’, perhaps even more so. Some of them still believed that if the Shenera Endraae had not fought the invaders, their world would not have fallen; some just blamed any fae they could find for the devastation.
“And we didn’t have to work so hard not to hurt them while they were attacking us, either.”
“Well, we were teenagers then.” And human.
“Do you ever wish you’d just passed, faded into humanity?” That was a new one. Shahin sat on the bench seat, her back stiff from the armor no matter how much she wanted to appear relaxed, and considered it.
“Do you?” Willow’s younger children were safe up in the far North, living with relatives that would hopefully never know their kittens were tiger cubs. It couldn’t be easy for her to leave them, to come out and fight and never tell them where Mommy was going.
But she was laughing. “Me? Hell, no. I’d make a lousy farmer. I like being on the move. But you…” She was working around saying “soft” or “delicate;” Shahin let her struggle around it. “You seem more at home indoors, even after all the battles I’ve seen you in. You could have worked Mo’s with her.”
The thought had, on occasion, occurred to her. Lady Maureen’s was safe and comfortable, and the work would have been pleasant and, above all, indoors. With running water. And yet here she was in horse-drawn RV fighting all comers like some post-modern Joan of Arc.
“Nah,” she drawled; if her spine couldn’t soften, at least her diction could. “I like conflict too much.”
“It runs in the family,” Willow noted, with a wry look at the wagon wall, as if she could stare through the wood. Your son, or mine? The question died on her lips as shouting rose up outside the wagon: conflict, coming as if bidden. She reached for the talisman that hung around her throat and stood, ignoring the pounding of her heart. She hadn’t been wrong. This couldn’t be their target; if it was, she had doomed them all.
As quickly as the two of the moved, the sounds of fighting had died before they reached the door, with no screams and barely a whimper. Shahin relaxed, and waited for the report.
It came soon enough, a polite knock on her wagon door before she had a chance to grow impatient. “sa’Ice?” called Arturo, informing her of the situation just in the way he chose to address her. “We’ve apprehended an intruder.” An Ellehemaei, then, a stranger, and one he didn’t want to clue in any more specifically.
“Bring it in, then,” she called, likewise omitting his name. She wasn’t expecting the laid-back chuckle that preceded her grandson and his prisoner into her wagon, but, once she got a good look at the face, she understood it.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten called ‘it,’” the captive purred, seemingly oblivious to its bound and collared state. “I think I missed it.” It shook, making the chains jangle. “Well, Shahin? You’ve caught me. What are you going to do with me?”
She couldn’t help a chuckle in response. “How many of ours were injured?” she asked Arturo, over their prisoner’s head.
“None, sa’… Sheen, though a couple are unconscious.”
"Well done," she murmured to her captive, "but you'll put them back to rights, of course."
“Of course, although…” it jangled the chains again, “this does make that a bit tricky.”
“Mmm. Well, invading a warrior camp on the edge of battle will, of course, have consequences. I can’t very well just release you and let you wander around – especially not when the creatures will be here soon.” She was enjoying this, wasn’t she? Well, so was her captive, although it was beginning to look a little strained around the edges. The hawthorn and rowan in the collar & chains would do that to someone, especially someone who used its power so casually and continually as this one.
“I can see how that would be a problem. But I really didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter, Sheen, and you’re not going to blame me for a mission I had no choice in, are you?”
“The Law says that free Adults are responsible for their own actions,” she retorted. “Are you a free Adult still?”
Its eyes got cautious; she’d telegraphed her actions on purpose. “I am. I have always been a free Adult.”
“I remember that you’d never bend your own neck to the collar you put around so many others,” she answered, “Student or Adult. And yet here you are, saying you had no choice in invading my camp.”
“Shahin,” it cajoled. Interesting to find that it was still charming, still hard to resist, even with the bonds limiting its magic. She’d wondered, from time to time, if that was power or innate talent. “You know how it is, when you work for Regine.”
“Only in theory. I’ve never stooped to that.” It was interesting to watch the expressions play across its face: indignation, a little bit of shame, and a mostly-hidden but growing concern.
“Shahin…” It frowned, seeing it was getting no-where with that tack, and bowed its head low, nearly touching the ground. “Sa’Ice-rapier, I do what I must…”
She coughed a laugh at its back. “You sent your kids to that school, the same as we all did. You didn’t have any choice in that, though you sure gave her enough of them to play with, didn’t you?”
She talked right over it. “But you knew what she was when you went to work for her, and you took her silver anyway. So don’t tell me you had no choice when you stepped into my camp and attacked my people.”
It looked up at her uncertainly. “Are you sure you’re Shahin?”
“I’m the Ice-Rapier,” she answered. “And you’re the Red Sun at Morning. I have a battle to fight and another one to avoid, and you’re in the way of that.”
It shook its head. “Wow. How times do change. Well, sa’Ice-Rapier, we have a bit of a problem then. Because I have to finish my mission.” It emphasized the words “have to,” which surprised her not at all.
“And I have to kill monsters. And you’re still trespassing.”
“Will you unchain me?” It jingled the chains pitifully.
“Not until you tell me what you’re doing in my camp.”
“Shahin, you know I can’t do that.” Even that much, she saw, was straining at a geas. She grinned wickedly down at the skinny hermaphrodite. It, unsurprisingly, was still good-looking, still young, half a century after they’d first met.
“There’s a way around that, you know, Ty.”
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