Saving Maltira chapter two
There was fanfare at the gates of Agharea as a team of warriors filed out of the city to start their journey to the shores of the white waters where they would meet and compete in a series of games and contests with warriors from the other seven cities.
Zenobe marched beside Alec, their commander, with zeal and excitement as she revved up in anticipation of the busy week ahead.
They walked a familiar path through the forest of Nervainy. Sifakas danced around the forest floors. Giant trees provided a thick canopy that only allowed shafts of sunlight barely enough for them to see their way through. Quetzals provided blotches of color in the limited lighting. But the ethereal beauty of the forest hid many dangers lurking underneath.
Zenobe felt a trickle down her spine and drew her bow. Even though her archery wasn’t as perfect as her swordsmanship, the experience taught her to rely on her bow when her enemy wasn’t within sight.
Alec noticed her movement and signaled the band to halt its march. He drew his sword and lifted his shield. It was foolhardy for anyone to attack a battalion of trained Agharean warriors, but battle instincts always overruled rationalizing. The rest of the band took his cue and drew their swords. They were in the middle of the forest. Tall trees and thick shrubs surrounded them and there was barely enough light to see properly. A growl sounded in the trees and Zenobe stilled; Jaguars.
Alec lowered his sword but didn’t sheath it. He signaled the cavalry to continue their march.
Zenobe whispered to him. “Shouldn’t we hunt it down?”
Alec looked at her and grinned. “Hungry for a challenge already?”
Zenobe kept her bow drawn and her eyes darted furtively around her. “I’m just being cautious. We don’t want to lose anyone to a Jaguar now, do we? ”
“We have three days to join the others at the white waters, there’s no time to waste hunting game. Besides Jaguars are opportunistic creatures, they would never attack a band. But” Alec gave her a snide look, “you already knew that.”
Zenobe made an impatient sound. “Well, we could as well move along. We are moving too slowly.”
The cavalry walked on through the forest only pausing to eat before moving on. Finally, they stopped as the sunset to make camp. It was quiet and dark; the only other noises heard were those of chirping insects and nocturnal creatures loitering around in their burrows. An owl hooted in the distance as the young people ate and made merry. Zenobe ate her food and drank water, deliberately avoiding the wine the others indulged freely on.
They fell asleep and Zenobe took watch beside Alec. She prowled the area in circles like a predator, restless. A persistent tingle at her nape told her danger was lurking in the shadows and she didn’t want to be surprised. Alec kept his eyes on her and left his sword unsheathed. A ruffle in the bushes sent Alec on his feet and Zenobe drew her bow taut. A low growl emanated from the same direction and Zenobe smiled; stupid Jaguar –still looking for trouble, well he came to the right place. The large solitary animal sprang from the bushes at Zenobe, at the same instant she released her arrow and it went straight through the thick fur into the Jaguar’s heart. The large cat collapsed heavily at her feet groaning in pain and Alec plunged his sharp double-edged Agharean steel sword into it, effectively killing it.
Zenobe gave him a lofty look and said, “You should listen to me more often.”
Alec merely grunted in reply as he wiped his sword clean on the dead animal’s fur.
Zenobe made to sit down when she suddenly remembered something; she pulled out her golden hilted dagger from her boot and knelt beside the corpse. Alec arched his brow at her in a questioning look and she explained as she skinned the animal, “I promised Otis I would bring him back a souvenir.”
The rest of the band awoke the next morning to continue their journey. Zenobe fell in step with them and engaged in light banter as they passed the slopes of Dystria and the plains of Boam.
Just as Zenobe broke away from them to join Alec in the front, a young boisterous warrior, tall and boyishly handsome with dark curls and well-chiseled features, ran ahead of her and blocked her path. She tried to go around him and he hurriedly blocked her exit. Her impatience etched its way into her facial features and her scowl was fierce. Her voice was dripping ice when she spoke, “What do you want Rhyne? We don’t have time for games.”
The handsome young soldier grinned rather sheepish and replied in a low baritone. “I just want to talk with you blondie.”
“Don’t call me blondie again.” Zenobe’s voice was deceptively sweet but her eyes were ablaze.
Rhyne swallowed hard and moved out of her way, eliciting chuckles and jeers from his peers.
* * *
“I saw dark and handsome talking to you. Has he proposed yet?”
Zenobe looked up from the sack she was trying to untie to glare at Alec. "How soon do you want to join your ancestors?”
His rich throaty laughter made her smile.
Zenobe continued, “I despise him. He's a moron and he's reveling in his stupidity.”
Alec sobered and gave her a serious look, "He's quite dashing you know, and he's not bad at archery. He could certainly teach you a thing or two."
"He's too vain. How can a man be that vain?"
Alec chuckled. “You have to settle in. Take your things to your corner and meet the others. I have a meeting with the master of arms and the commanders from the other cities."
She chose a corner got ready for what was always the first task: setting up camp.
* * *
The sound of the horn breathed life into Zenobe's bones. Closing her eyes, she felt an electric charge run through her as the master of arms blew the horn that signaled the start of the festival.
The ‘festival’, a full week of activity comprising of a show of battle skills and quests, was a tournament for warriors from the cities that made up Maltira. There were the long-eared Nacarans, the fair Queens, the aggressive Colons, and the others from Ziruith, Bebeth, Toloq, and Color. Zenobe’s eyes scanned the small crowd, she stood in battle formation wearing leather sandals and body armor crafted from the skin of an alligator (In a real battle, her armor would have been one made from the toughest iron). She ran her hands over it reminiscing on the time her father had gifted it to her when she turned fifteen and was the youngest warrior in training who had qualified to join the warriors to the festival that season.
Zenobe spun in the direction of the voice and snarled, she drew her sword and advanced towards him menacingly.
Rhyne bit his lip and tasted blood immediately realizing the folly of his words. His eyes darted around furtively as he clamped and unclamped his sweaty palms.
A few feet away from where the drama was unfolding, Alec raised his eyes to the sky and swore. He approached them in an unhurried stride, secretly savoring the sight of a visibly shaken Rhyne. He reached Zenobe first and placed his palm on her sword arm. She turned ferocious blue eyes on him. Unflinching, Alec looked into those animal eyes and called her name sharply. Slowly she began to relax and finally sheathed her sword in one fluid motion.
"I'm going to kill him. If he calls me blondie one more time I'm going to kill him." She addressed Alec, not trusting herself to look at Rhyne without giving in to the gnawing urge to rip him apart.
Alec smiled and turned to face the small crowd that had gathered in the hopes of witnessing their first fight in the festival. "The show is over”, He said. “Take your places."
* * *
A battle-worn gray-haired man rode into the camp on a black stallion. He was rather muscular for his age and a distinct battle scar ran down his left cheek. He was wearing full body armor. He held a horn in his right hand while he grasped the reins of his sturdy horse –a particularly decorated horse- with his left. Apart from its shiny mane, the horse wore a breastplate, exaggerated horseshoes, and a flamboyant saddle. Its rider arrogantly addressed the assembled warriors in high tones.
“Why does he always have to be so dramatic?” whispered a soft musical voice.
Zenobe turned to see a young woman around her age, her jet black hair hung down to her waist and she had flawless olive skin. Zenobe blinked twice in surprise at her unusual appearance. Her eyes sparkled like twin pearls in oyster shells and she was strikingly beautiful in an odd way like a - "are you a Halfling?" Zenobe said in an awed voice.
The girl looked at her strangely and said, "obviously.” Then she smiled, "my mother is from the west.”
Zenobe stared in envy, "do you have telepathic powers?"
The Halfling looked at her seriously for a moment and then seemed to consider it before bursting out in laughter.
The musical sound of her laughter was unlike anything Zenobe had ever heard and pulled her in instead of annoying her. She stretched out her hand and pulled the Halfling close to her. "What is your name?"
"Hilda", was the soft reply.
Zenobe looked at her quizzically. "That’s a northern name."
Hilda smiled. “My mother has a friend from the north. I was named after her. "
"Oh, they must be really close."
Hilda shrugged, "I guess so. What about you?"
“I wasn't named after my mother's friend."
That drew a chuckle.
“I mean what is your name?”
“I’m Zenobe. Is this your first time at the festival? I've never seen you before."
"Yes, my mother never wanted me to be a warrior. She only recently gave me permission to attend the festival. I guess she feels I've earned the freedom."
Zenobe listened raptly. "What about your father?”
"My father does whatever my mother wants," Hilda answered with a dismissive wave.
Zenobe gave her an odd look.
Hilda caught the look and smiled. "My mother is from the west, Zen, what have you heard about the women of the west?” She leveled her with a knowing look and Zenobe giggled taking Hilda by surprise. "You just giggled!"
Zenobe blushed. "Yes?"
Hilda gasped, "You're blushing! I saw you freeze the dark-haired hunk from your team a while ago and concluded you were as cold as ice."
Zenobe turned an even deeper shade of crimson and whispered fervently, "Stop!"
Hilda laughed and let it go. "I think I'm bringing out the other side of you.”
* * *
The atmosphere was tense in the warriors’ camp as the master of arms rolled out the assignments.
His voice carried out across the sea of eager contestants. "Aghareans, you're up against the Toloqs! Three quests will be assigned to you. The first to complete all three wins. Your commander will pick the three amongst you who will compete in each round. Your first task: Find a pack of wolves and capture their infant alive without causing any fatal injury to any of the other members of the pack. The first team to return with the goal wins.”
Alec picked Zenobe, Rhyne and Artacis, a fierce shield maiden, for the first quest. Zenobe glared at Rhyne, a low growl emanating from her chest in clear warning. Artacis observed both of them and turned to Alec, "Really?”
Alec sighed in his long-suffering manner and looked pointedly at Zenobe, "I trust my team to be serious and focused. You understand that teamwork is essential to the success of your quest, but to be safe, Artacis will lead. You are to follow her command, understood?” All three nodded. “Good. Now choose your weapons."
Rhyne picked a long stick while Artacis picked a net but Zenobe didn’t pick any weapon.
A glint entered Alec’s eyes and he grinned, then he leaned into Zenobe to whisper, "I wish I could come along and see you in action". He secretly got revved up from watching her go all ‘naked weapon’. She had immense strength and knew when to fall back on it. She moved with grace and power and Alec almost got distracted just thinking about it. He spoke sharper than he intended. "You've all made wise choices, your time starts now!”
Artacis set off first followed by Rhyne. Alec managed to see Zenobe unleash her animalism before she took off, he swallowed hard as his tongue went dry. What is wrong with me?
Their search took them a day and a half before they found a pack of wolves on the hunt. It took them more time to finally trace them back to their lair and capture a pup.
They were a few meters from the camp when Zenobe saw the dark hair first and knew instinctively that it was Hilda even before the beauty showed her face. The depth of the connection hit her with full force. How could she be so connected with someone she just met and barely knew?
Hilda winked at Zenobe as she walked past her to Artacis and gave the unsuspecting young woman a blow. Stunned, Artacis dropped the pup which was quickly caught by another one of Hilda's teammates. The young athletic warrior now in possession of the pup set off in a run towards the camp barely giving the stupefied Artacis time to recover.
Articles growled in anger and went after the thief.
Zenobe gasped and froze in shock as she tried to make sense of what had just happened. She took off in a sprint after Hilda when she recovered and caught up with her on the outskirts of the camp just when her teammates were presenting the stolen prize to the master of arms. Zenobe was furious. “You did not include the word ‘thief’ when you introduced yourself earlier," She said stiffly.
Hilda just laughed which only served to infuriate Zenobe more.
"What is wrong with you?!”
That got Hilda's attention. She gave her a strange look. "Why are you so sensitive?”
"Sensitive?! I'm sensitive?! You stole our catch!" Zenobe’s eyes flashed with anger.
Hilda shrugged absentmindedly. "It’s part of the game. You have to learn cunning; it’s one of the skills you have to possess to be a renowned warrior. I have to join the rest of my team now." She walked away leaving a seething Zenobe behind.
Zenobe entered the camp practically livid. Alec met her, "What happened?”
"The Toloqs stole from us, Alec."
"Stole? That's a first."
"Shouldn't that be against the rules?"
"It is. If you can prove it."
"Can you imagine her giving me a speech on how to be a renowned warrior? She had never even been to the festival before now and suddenly she’s an expert on the games. I'm so angry. And to think that I actually liked her."
"Who are you talking about?
"The Toloq. Hilda."
"The dark-haired beauty? She's so innocent."
Zenobe narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm going to get them, the Toloqs, the entire lot."
"Just be careful, never forget honor and dignity. You've never been sneaky."
"I understand, Alec; I won’t stoop to their level."
* * *
The girls steered clear of each other until the last day of the festival. As usual, there was a party to celebrate the overall winners of the tournament. For the first time in decades, the Toloqs came first. Zenobe was fuming.
"We don't always have to come first you know,” Alec said.
"I know Alec, I'm not angry because we lost. The Tools stole and cheated their way to victory."
"Well, let's not let them steal our fun. Try to enjoy the party, Zen; it's not every day you get to go to a party like this one."
Zenobe sighed in resignation and finally brightened up in a smile. "Alright. I'll try to have fun."
The party was as exquisite as always. Rich wine had been brought from Ziruith –the best winemakers in the entire south. The warriors were dressed in various attires denoting their nations as they wined and dined with abandon. Zenobe, herself was dressed in a simple gold studded maroon colored dress that flowed to her ankles. A single gold armlet circled her left arm and served as the only accessory on her apart from the gold embellishments on her dress. Her hair was pulled back from her face with plain combs. But despite her rather simple outfit, Zenobe was easily one of the most beautiful maidens in the camp. She smirked as she noticed the young women flirting with the men. For her, the festival was over. Yet, in her heart, she knew this was the only part of the festival her mother actually approved of. She chuckled as she thought of her mother and what she would say if she found out she wasn't "mingling".
"What’s so funny?”
Zenobe’s heart skipped a beat and resentment filled her in a rush. "You have guts, Hilda. Coming to talk to me after all you did."
Hilda sighed sadly and said, "I really like you Zenobe. I'm hoping we can leave this misunderstanding behind and continue our newfound friendship."
"I cannot befriend a thief."
"Don't you think you're prejudging me?"
Zenobe turned and looked her dead in the eye. Bad choice. Why do I feel so drawn to her? Who are you?
That's what I'm giving you a chance to find out Zen.
Zenobe gasped. "What did you say?"
"That's why I came back to find you. Something is happening between us. I don't understand it but I believe if we remain friends and get to know each other better we can figure it out."
"Alright then. But if you steal from me again that’s it."
"Agreed.” Hilda took a deep breath and let it out in a relieved rush. “Ha. .it feels so nice to be on speaking terms with you again. I've never been to Agharea. I heard the streets are made of gold."
Zenobe laughed and felt the remainder of her lingering doubts drift away.