Hikane looked up at the castle walls that loomed around her with a sense of shame. The war had come to this, its darkest hour and yet she had hidden herself away, refusing to join the army, too scared to come forward and fight, too frightened to take up a sword even though her brother had shown her how.
He was dead now, and she knew part of her fear had been because of his passing; he had always been strong, steadfast in his beliefs; invincible to her. Hikane had lost everything when he had died; he had been her last living relative. Yet he had told her that their way of life was to be fought for, was worth preserving. He told her horror stories of the New Order; the new religion that funded Dezmeria’s conquest of the continent. They kept women in homes to bear children and did not allow them to fight or take any offices of power; they killed those who had sex before marriage. Status depended on your birth, not what you had earned. Elections among the people were unheard of; instead a king ruled on his own whims. Hikane didn’t know how many of those stories were true, and so she had kept her distance from the war, trying to live out her life while pretending nothing was happening. She got the odd glances from those left behind who wondered why she wasn’t at the front, but joining the army was still voluntary. Even now, when the city was effectively surrounded by its enemies. She wondered if that were freedom or foolishness, but appreciated the opportunity to make her own choices.
“Fight because you believe in what our country stands for, not because you feel pressured to,” her brother had said, yet she didn’t know the reasons for her decision to sign up now. She loved her country, despite its problems, and hated the ideals the Order stood for, yet she feared bloodshed, was afraid of taking up a sword and ending another person’s life.
Yet here she was regardless, and she approached the guard standing at the castle gate; an old man who looked ready to retire. She wondered why such an old man was fighting. He could barely hold himself up straight, yet he gripped his spear tightly and his insignia shield with determination, as if he fell, so would their country of Azuri.
“I’ve come to sign up,” Hikane said quietly.
He looked her over with an appraising look, and Hikane couldn’t tell if he was disgusted by her previous laziness or happy that somebody else was joining the ranks.
“It’s hard, you know,” the old man said, “But I can’t say they don’t need you. Goodness, we all need you. Things are so bad… Death doesn’t frighten me, young lady, but this New Order chills me to the bone.”
Hikane nodded, “My brother told me about them.”
“What he told you is probably all true, young lady. I thought those stories were lies, propaganda, until I saw the village of Ashan. They destroyed the temple, set up a church to their god, and forced conversion on everybody. They killed anybody who didn’t meet their strict rules of man-woman relationships. The priestesses of that village… They were so in love, and everybody was so inspired by their example. The Order branded them an offense to their god and cut them down…” He looked down at his feet, “Would I that I could still fight… but I was wounded in that battle and this is all I can do, now. But you… You can fight. Please, child. Go down those steps and tell them Hazan sent you. Tell them you want to join Lady Arania’s unit.”
“I’ve heard of the great Lady Arania,” Hikane said, “Why on earth would she take me into her ranks? It was said she killed a hundred men by herself, and commands an elite unit… I can use a sword, but I’ve never seen real combat!”
“Even the Lady can’t be picky any more,” the old man said, “Besides, I think you have promise. I think you’ll serve the Lady well. Perhaps you are the last hope for this country, child. Go now, talking is tiring me…”
“Thank you,” Hikane said, and walked into the castle. She made her way down to the dungeon, where a noisy crowd were assembled in line. They wrote down their names, picked up swords and mismatched armor, and made their way up the steps at the far end.
When she got to the front, a guard said gruffly, “What’s your purpose here?’
“I came to join up,” Hikane said, “A man called Hazan said I should ask to join Lady Arania’s unit.”
“Lady Arania’s unit? Ha! She only has the best, child. I haven’t heard of this Hazan, but I think he’s been feeding you fairy tales. All you will get here is a sword, some armor that might fit you, and a posting at the front. If you’re talented and lucky, you might someday get a command. Chances are, though, you’ll just die out there. But it’s worth it, right? Everything Azuri has is unique, a culture that exists nowhere else in the world. A democratically elected government, freedoms that people in the other continents can only dream of, and the freedom to practice whatever religion you like. Hell, you can even worship the Order’s god if you want to, it’s none of my business.”
“Listen to you,” another guard piped in, “You’re not a salesman anymore, you don’t need to sell this girl on the war. I think she gets it, or she wouldn’t be here. Right?” He looked at Hikane.
“Right,” she said, nodding, “Look, about Lady Arania’s unit…”
“Who sent you?” the other guard asked.
“The old man at the gate – Hazan, I think he said his name was.” Hikane said.
“Hazan? Hmm…” He drifted into thought, “I’ll handle this one,” he said to the other guard, “Child, come with me.”
“I’m not a child,” Hikane said, “I’m twenty-two.” She walked away with the guard, and the man behind her limped up to the post.
“You’re too young to die, so you’re a child still. It’s not an insult, lass. I just haven’t been formerly introduced.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m Hikane Kaze.”
“Hikane of the wind…” the guard thought for a second, “Did another Kaze serve here?”
“Yes, my brother,” Hikane said, “he was killed, about a year ago…”
“I think I remember him,” the guard said, “Honorable to a fault, a good man. He died trying to save two priestesses that the New Order executed.”
“Those priestesses again,” Hikane thought, “the old man mentioned them too…” but she said nothing. The guard led her back out into the city streets. Hazan was no longer at his post, and had been replaced by a younger man.
“Why are we going outside?” Hikane said, “I thought I was going to be sent directly to the front.”
“The Lady is returning to us today,” the guard said, “The Council wants a report from her. I thought it would be easier if we met her personally. She likes to approve her recruits.”
Sure enough, as they approached the main city street, trumpets blared. The few people left in the city gathered, some limping, others coughing, some trying desperately to get a glance while assimilating themselves into the crowd. Lady Arania was a heroine, after all, and many of the hopes of the people were pinned on her.
Her horse hurried in, and she slowed to wave to the people while at the same time trying to make haste. She sat tall on her white horse, clad in beaten and bloody white armor from head to toe. She dismounted in front of the castle, and gave her horse to a stable boy to be fed and brushed down.
“My Lady!” the guard standing next to Hikane said, “I have a new recruit for you.”
“I’m sorry,” she said to the guard, “Take her to my quarters. Right now I must report to the Council.”
“Yes, sir,” he bowed, and the Lady took her leave.
Hikane didn’t know what to make of Lady Arania. She was a legend for her exploits at the front, that was for sure, but Hikane had never met her in person before. She had kept away from the city, afraid of the glances that reminded her of the duty she should be undertaking. She had seen the Lady from a distance, and knew she was an imposing figure, a great beauty with long white hair, but her manner had seemed cold. But then, what did it matter if she didn’t like the person behind the legend? It was her job to fight for her country, not just for this one person.
The guard guided her to Arania’s room and told her not to touch anything, to wait patiently for Arania’s return. She stood, not even daring to sit. She looked at the soft silken bedding on the huge four-poster bed, and wished she could lie in it, just for a day. There would be no comforts at the front, she knew. It would be hard for her, yet somehow she knew she must take this path.
Eventually, the door opened and Lady Arania stepped in. Her helm was under her arm, and her long, white hair hung loose around her shoulders and down her back. She smiled warmly, and Hikane was taken off-guard. The woman standing before her now seemed like a completely different person to the one she had met earlier.
“Help me take off my armor,” she said, and Hikane hurried to help. She fumbled with the straps, and ended up with a large pile of plates, but Arania just smiled.
“I feel like I know you,” she said, “It must be because of your brother. He was a very courageous man, filled with spirit and empathy. He rushed to save two priestesses because he said that love was the most important thing in the world. Even though he failed, he was their knight. He stood up for what he believed in.”
“My brother served with you?” Hikane said. She hadn’t known what unit he had served in.
“Yes,” Arania said, “I wonder if you are cut from the same cloth as him.”
Hikane shook her head, “My lady, I could never be as noble as my brother. He went to fight for what he believed in, while I hid away in my home, too afraid to sign up.”
“There is no shame in being afraid,” Arania said, “It is better that people know what they are fighting for and fight with their whole heart for what they believe. It’s an advantage we have over Dezmeria’s conscript army.”
Hikane nodded, not knowing what to say. It seemed everybody knew her brother. Could she live up to their expectations?
“I want you to fight in my unit,” Arania said, “I think you’ll make a fine addition to the ranks. If you perform well, I have a special task for you.”
“I’ll try not to disappoint,” Hikane said.
The small unit of elite warriors that made up Arania’s army rode for weeks. Hikane had saddle sore in a day, her armor was heavy, and she felt woefully inadequate amongst some of the greatest warriors her land had to offer. Still, Arania tried to make her part of the unit. She would often have Hikane ride beside her.
“How are you doing?” Arania asked.
“I’m a little scared,” Hikane admitted, “When will we see battle?”
“In a day or so,” Arania said, “Don’t be frightened, Hikane. I’ll protect you.”
Hikane felt reassured by that, but in the melee, would that really happen? There were goals to be accomplished, and the great Lady Arania couldn’t afford to babysit a green soldier like herself.
She slept uneasily that night, knowing that soon she would be fighting for her life and her country. She thought of her brother, and wondered how he had felt before battles. Had he been afraid?
Before she knew it, the sound of trumpets and shouting awoke her. “Surprise attack!” came the cry. Hikane grabbed her sword, put on her armor as quickly as she could manage, and rushed from the tent.
Fire burned all around them, engulfing many tents while soldiers were still inside. Enemy soldiers rushed through the camp, engaging Azuri soldiers as they went. Hikane found herself facing up against a soldier. She held up her sword as her brother had shown her, and the soldier charged recklessly towards her. She concentrated and swung the sword, and experienced surprise as she felt it slice through flesh and bone. The man fell to the ground in front of her, disemboweled. She tried not to look, forced the sickness down and instead concentrated on the battle. She looked around for Arania, and saw her being backed into a tent by two men. She rushed forward and engaged one in battle while the other one fought with Arania in the tent. This soldier was more skilled than the first, and she had to use all her skills just to keep him from killing her. She heard a cry from the tent and felt panic fill her gut.
“Lady Arania!” she called out, and, sidestepping the soldier’s blow and giving him a knee to the groin, rushed into the tent.
Arania was on the ground, her chestplate stripped off and her tunic underneath ripped. The man was fondling her breasts, and Hikane felt herself filled with a white-hot rage. Was this what Dezmerian soldiers did to those they conquered? No wonder her brother had fought so hard, he had been a man of honor. She felt his spirit fill her now and let herself channel him.
“Stand and fight, you dog!” Hikane called with strength in her voice, and the soldier turned, pulling his sword from the ground. Arania took the opportunity to trip him up, and he went sprawling to the ground.
The knight that she had been fighting outside the tent rushed in and grabbed Hikane by the hair, putting his sword in front of her neck.
“Let him have what he wants,” the soldier said, “Or the girl dies.”
The other soldier got up and dusted himself off, then advanced on Arania again. Arania had her sword in hand, and Hikane expected her to ignore the threat and chop the man’s head off. That’s what she should have done, anyway, Hikane thought. Instead, Arania threw her sword to the ground in resignation and the soldier ripped away her clothing and armor. Arania’s naked form was beautiful, and Hikane felt her heart beat fast at the sight of her. Only these men were going to –
“No!” Hikane screamed, “Kill them, Lady Arania! Never mind about me! Please!”
“I can’t let you die,” Arania said, “I promised I would protect you.”
“I don’t care!” Hikane said, “Some things are worth dying for! Like stopping these pigs from taking our country! I won’t let them do this to you!” She struggled, but the man holding her was stronger. She saw the man advancing on Arania, ready to enter her and a desperate rage engulfed her. She felt strength flow into her arms and she elbowed the soldier holding her in the ribs with a blow so hard she heard his rib crack. He dropped his sword and clutched his side, and she grabbed him like a ragdoll and snapped his neck.
Lady Arania kicked her would-be-rapist and he fell back, clutching himself in agony. Hikane rounded on him, and stabbed her sword downward into him, so deeply it pinned him to the ground below as he gasped his last breaths. She started to punch his dying body even as he called out for mercy, again and again.
“Hikane!” Lady Arania cried out, “I’m all right, so please, stop!”
The world came back to her, and she heard the sound of battle outside. A desperate sorrow filled her, and she started to weep, great sobs that shook her body. Arania came close to her and cradled her in her naked arms. Hikane let her head rest on Arania’s soft breasts, and felt her heart pounding in her chest.
Arania let go, and reached for her armor, hastily putting it on and reaching for her sword, “Stay here,” she said, “You are not to leave this tent. Understood? I have to fight, but you’re not fit to be out there. You’ll get yourself killed right now. So stay here, that’s an order!”
Hikane nodded, unable to do anything else. Her mind and body were full of conflicting feelings and she couldn’t function. She wanted to reach for her sword, to go out there and fight by Lady Arania’s side instead of cowering in her tent, but her hands were shaking and she couldn’t see.
She sat there for an eternity until the sound of fighting eased away. Finally, the tent flap opened, and Arania came in, her armor covered in blood.
“My lady!” Hikane gasped, “Are you hurt?”
“Don’t be concerned,” Arania said, “Very little of this blood is mine. We fought back the surprise attack, but we’ve taken heavy losses.”
“I’m sorry,” Hikane said, “I was completely useless.”
“That’s not true,” Arania said, “I owe you a great debt. You have the same spark in you that your brother had. That’s why he took my place that night. I was the one who wanted to save the priestesses. Your brother knew that it was a hopeless cause, so he declared that he was going to go. It should have been me who died, but he said I was too important to lose.”
“I’m not my brother,” Hikane said, “I just… I couldn’t bear to see them do that to you… because of me.”
“I know you’re not your brother,” Arania said, “I didn’t take you in just because of him.”
“Then why?” Hikane said, “Why risk yourself on someone like me?”
“Because I need you,” Arania said, “I need somebody I can trust, somebody who will understand what I am about to tell you, and keep it a secret. Somebody who won’t use it to take my power from me because of politics and ambition. Do you promise not to tell anybody what I am about to tell you?”
“I promise,” Hikane said.
“I’m going blind,” Arania said, “I saw a doctor, but he says this condition is incurable. I will lose my sight within a few months. I’ve sharpened my other senses to compensate, but I’m losing my ability to fight. I never would have been attacked in that tent if I’d been able to see well. I know I should step down, but the people look up to me, and I don’t want to spend my last days in the castle, blind and dependent on everybody, while our country is crushed.”
“I’m so sorry,” Hikane said, “What can I do for you, my lady?”
“Be my eyes,” Arania said, “Fight by my side, and watch my back. Guard this tent while I sleep and help me dress if I need to get up quickly. It’s worse when I wake. Can you do that?”
“I would be proud to serve,” Hikane said, “But why me?”
“You have an honest heart,” Arania said, “I know you won’t betray me. There are spies for the Order everywhere, even within our own ranks. Those who are too loyal would want to send me back for my own safety, to die in shame and misery. I need somebody to stay by my side and take care of me. Effectively, you’ll be my squire, cleaning my armor, taking care of my personal needs, but we’ll know you’re the one protecting me.”
“What will you do when it becomes too bad?” Hikane asked.
“Die in battle,” Arania said, “Nobody will ever know.”
“I don’t want you to die!” Hikane said, “There has to be another way!”
“Don’t get too attached,” Arania said, “Any of us could die any day out here. You have to remember that that’s a possibility. I’m not invincible, neither are you. When I die, you have to carry on, and be the noble knight you are destined to be.”
“I’m sorry,” Hikane said, “You’ve just been so kind to me, like nobody I’ve ever met. Who knew that a warrior could be so gentle? It hurts me to know what is happening to you.”
“I’m sorry to place such a huge burden on you,” Lady Arania said.
“It’s not your fault,” Hikane said, “I’m honored and touched that you trust me so, when you barely know me.”
“Come now,” Arania said, “Please take off my armor and brush my hair. I want to look respectable for the soldier’s funerals.”
Hikane took off the bloodied armor and set it aside to be cleaned. Arania gestured to the torn tunic as well and Hikane stripped her of that too, until she was completely naked again. She stripped off her own armor and took the hairbrush Arania offered her. Sitting down behind her, Hikane took the silver strands in her hand and proceeded to brush Arania’s long, silken hair.
“You’re so beautiful,” Hikane whispered to herself.
“Thank you,” Arania smiled. Hikane blushed.
Hikane finished and cleaned Arania’s armor, found her a fresh tunic and helped her get dressed. She looked magnificent, and Hikane followed her out of the tent.
As they stood before the funeral pyre, Lady Arania spoke moving words that made Hikane well up with tears. Arania said something personal about each soldier, even though there were more than a hundred dead. Hikane knew that any day, either of them could be on that pyre. Would Arania light the funeral pyre for her? Would she say anything special about her? What would she have to say? Hikane didn’t even want to think about Arania’s death. It was a thought she couldn’t bear, and so she just let it lie.
Later, in Arania’s tent, across from her, Hikane sat watch and thought. So many conflicting emotions filled her heart. She thought back to the events of that day. She had killed two men, when she had never killed before. She would have done anything to save Arania, even giving up her own life. What was that feeling that burned within her even now for the beautiful woman across from her? Was it something that had been forged in the heat of battle, a crush that would soon pass? Or was it deeper? How could she trust her own mind on a day that had been so difficult? And if she let herself fall in love, it was doomed regardless of what Arania felt. She had chosen her path – to die on the field before she went blind. They could never be together.
Hikane found tears wetting her cheeks, and cried quietly into the night, until second watch stood outside the tent and she settled into sleep.
They marched the next day, and camped across a valley from the enemy. Battle would come again on the morrow, Hikane knew. The soldiers were tense and nervous, but Arania said it was normal the night before a battle.
“Everybody wonders if they’re going to die tomorrow. It’s a normal feeling,” Arania said, when Hikane sat with her in the evening.
“Do you get frightened?” Hikane asked.
“Of course I do,” Arania said, “I’m still afraid of death, like anybody else. I also feel like I carry the weight of the country on my shoulders. So many people are depending on me to win this war…”
“That’s because you’re an incredible warrior!” Hikane said, “They say you killed a hundred men by yourself!”
“I’m still only human,” Arania said, “What will they do when I’m gone?”
“They’ll find a way,” Hikane said.
“Perhaps you can take my place,” Arania smiled, and ran her fingers gently down Hikane’s face.
“I could never be such a good warrior as you!” Hikane said.
“Perhaps not, but you have heart,” Arania said, “Too many people have forgotten what they’re fighting for. Skill is something that can be learned, but passion comes from the heart.”
“I didn’t know what I was fighting for either, to begin with,” Hikane said, “I was lost. I went to the castle because I felt everybody was looking at me for not doing my duty, including my brother’s spirit. But now I’ve found a reason to fight. I want to fight for you. I want to protect you, and this country!”
“I’m nothing special,” Arania said, “I’m just a person. Azuri is more important. Our government and open society is unique. The only reason both of us women are here today is because our country treats us as equals and lets us fight and participate fully in society. Haven’t you noticed that the enemy soldiers are all men? That’s because Dezmaria keeps all their women at home, to cook and clean and bear children. I could never live like that. I don’t want our people to lose their freedoms. That’s why I’m here.”
“My brother told me those stories, but I never knew if they were true or not,” Hikane said.
“They’re true,” Arania said.
“Hey…” said Hikane, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Sure, go ahead,” Arania said.
“Do you have any family at home?” Hikane said.
“No,” Arania said, “Everybody who could fight in my family has died in this war. Those who were left were elderly, and perished while I’ve been at the front. And I… don’t have anybody else. No husband or wife waiting for me at home. It wouldn’t have been fair, knowing that I would be away for most of the time.”
“Do you ever feel lonely?” Hikane asked.
“Sometimes,” Arania said, “But that’s the price of serving my country.” Hikane had seen that loneliness in her eyes, and knew it had not been imagined. She didn’t want Arania to be alone. She promised herself that she would always be there for her, until the end.
The battle began in the morning. Both sides surged into the valley at first light, and steel clashed against steel. Hikane was in the thick of things, fighting alongside Lady Arania, trying to stay close on her horse. A large soldier got in between them, and Hikane struggled to fight him off. Arania fought like a bear, pushing back the enemies that threatened to surround her.
It was then that Hikane saw the archers hidden behind the brush in the valley. She called out to Arania, but the archers were already firing, taking down their men at an alarming rate. Hikane raced to Arania’s side, cutting a path for her.
“We’ve got to pull back!” Arania cried, “Signal to the men to fall back to the river!”
Hikane passed on the orders, and the men started to retreat.
“We’ve got to buy some time for them to get away!” Arania shouted. She cut down two hulking men in front of her. Her sword and armor were covered in blood.
Like a sixth sense, Hikane saw the arrow in the corner of her eye and almost instantly knew it would hit Arania. She did the only thing she could do and spurred her horse forward so she was in harm’s way. The arrow stuck her arm and she cried out in pain and fell from her horse.
“Hikane!” Arania cried. Fending off her attackers, she jumped from her horse, scooped Hikane up over her shoulder, threw her over the the horse and mounted behind her. Turning away, she spurred her horse onward, away from the battle. Her troops were running across the fields, being decimated by the enemy fire.
The mood in the camp was somber when they finally found safety. They had taken heavy losses, and the army was too small to continue without going back to meet up with reinforcements.
“Damn it!” Arania said, when she was back in her tent. “If only my vision was good, I’d have seen those archers! I should have known!”
“They were well concealed,” Hikane said, nursing her arm. They had taken the arrow out and she was left with a deep wound that burned, “Even I didn’t see them until we were too close.”
“I’m scared we’re losing, Hikane,” Arania confided, “My vision is getting worse by the day. I fear it won’t be a year, but a month until I’m blind. We can’t concede much more land, we’re almost at the castle gates as it is.”
“We’ll meet up with the reinforcements, and we’ll do better next time,” Hikane said, “I’m sorry you had to rescue me again. I was supposed to protect you. I promised I would protect you.”
“You did protect me,” Arania said, “You think I didn’t work out that that arrow was meant for me?”
“Lady Arania, I…” Hikane began, but was cut off by one of the generals bursting into the tent.
“Surprise attack!” he called, “Lady Arania, I don’t know where they are coming from! They seem to be everywhere!”
Arania and Hikane hurried from the tent. Hikane refused to let Arania out of her sight, after the last surprise attack.
“It’s no good,” Arania said, “We have to fall back further. The reinforcements should be in the valley; we can join up with them and launch a counter-offensive. Abandon the camp!” The camp was thrown into chaos as everybody grabbed what they could, leaving tents and animals behind. Several men and women were slain; Hikane tried not to look behind her as she fled with Arania by her side.
They raced ahead for hours, long beyond exhaustion, until they reached the valley where they ahd been told the reinforcements would be waiting. What they saw there horrified them.
“By the Gods!” Arania swore. She looked down on a sea of dead soldiers. All their reinforcements were dead. It looked like a massacre; there were few enemy soldiers amongst the dead.
“We have no supplies, few soldiers, and somebody has betrayed us!” One of the generals spat, looking suspiciously at Hikane. Arania gave him a cold glare, and he fell silent.
“We have to fall back to the city,” Arania sighed in resignation, “We have no other choice.”
They made camp, but the mood was black; many of the soldiers were cursing Lady Arania, saying it had been folly for them to leave the city, and that they should have focused on defense over offense. She stood in the shadows, listening to their criticism, shaking her bowed head with Hikane beside her.
“I’ve failed them,” Arania said, “What they’re saying is right. I never should have led them into battle knowing my condition. I was trying to race against time, but instead I just led good soldiers to their deaths.”
“It’s not your fault,” Hikane said. “Somebody has betrayed us and told Dezmeria about our plans and the location of the reinforcements. But why? Why throw away all that Azuri has to offer for the closed minded Dezmerian society?”
“Some people just don’t care,” Arania said, “Others still believe that Azuri’s society has become decadent and debased. They yearn for the conservative nature of Dezmeria, for a society where men have more power. Some just yearn for political advantage, and don’t care what society they earn that in, so long as they feel they can influence the way of things. Not everybody thinks the same, Hikane. You’re too young to remember many of the changes Azuri has been through and some of the great opposition those changes brought, even if they are accepted now.”
“Do you suppose Dezmeria will ever change?” Hikane said, “So if we lose this war, there’s still hope for the future?”
“I don’t know,” Arania said, “We would be turning back the clock a long way. Dezmeria’s society is structured a lot differently to ours. The people have a lot less say, and the king’s rule is absolute. Their laws are based on religion, which rarely changes, and their religious books damn many things which we hold dear. I don’t see a lot of hope if we lose.”
“I still can’t believe so many people are ready to desert us,” Hikane said, “I will fight to the very end with you, Lady Arania. Even if every last soldier leaves us tonight, I will still be here in the morning.”
“Thank you,” Arania said, “You don’t know how much that means to me.” She took Hikane in a deep embrace, and Hikane silently swore to herself that she would die to protect Arania, if need be.
It was no surprise that when they woke the next day, the camp was a lot smaller. Many soldiers had deserted in the night, stealing supplies as they went. Hikane wondered if she would see them in the future, dressed in Dezmeria’s colors, leading the conquest against the country that had once been their home, in order to bring down a government that they had once chosen.
Arania looked tired and older as she surveyed what was left of her army. Hikane noticed her kick the ashes of a campfire in her frustration as all her dreams turned to dust. It was then that she realized truly how much Azuri meant to Arania. It was more than just her home, it was the land she had helped shape and defend all her life, a land she truly believed in and had shed blood for gladly. Now it would take a miracle to save it from Dezmeria, a land that Hikane knew that Arania did not want to live in. When she thought about it, neither did she. She didn’t want the clock to turn back on all the changes Arania had fought for. Hikane didn’t want same sex love to become illegal, because that would be the death of her. She knew that her love for Arania went beyond mere friendship. She didn’t want to abandon her gods and take up new ones. She didn’t work that way. Once she believed in something, it was with passion and all her heart. Some men’s allegiances changed like the wind, but not hers. Not Arania’s. They were together in this.
Arania came to her in their tent, looking dejected and frustrated, “We should depart for the city.” she said, hastily gathering together her things in anger.
“Stop it!” Hikane said, “Stop acting like we’ve lost! It’s not over yet! I won’t give up on Azuri. I’ll fight until the end, even if you won’t!” There were tears in her eyes.
“There’s no way we can defend the city,” Arania said bluntly, “If my men have defected, who knows how many are left in the city? We may as well just hand everything over to Dezmeria and surrender, to save a few innocent lives.”
“I won’t live under their regime,” Hikane said, “I’ll go into exile first. I’ll take the dream of the life we had in Azuri abroad with me. I won’t crush who I am to fit into Dezmerian society. Will you?”
Hikane turned and stormed out of the tent, leaving Arania stunned behind her.
Their ragtag band reached the city gates a few weeks later, dejected and disheartened, “I have to report to the Council,” Arania said. She rode on horseback alone through the city, with no crowd to greet her.
“What about me?” Hikane said, “Where will I go?”
“You can go to the barracks, if you wish,” Arania said, “Or you can stay in my room. It’s entirely up to you. Make yourself at home. I don’t know where we go from here, so we might be in the city for a while.”
“I’ll be waiting in your room, then,” Hikane said.
As she made her way up to Arania’s room, a lightheaded feeling came over her. Her arm burned, she felt like her whole body was burning, and she collapsed on the stairway.
“Please come back to me.” A familiar voice that felt warm to Hikane, but she couldn’t remember. Everything had been so warm, and so cold at the same time. It had felt like one long nightmare.
Hikane opened her eyes, “Lady… Arania…?” she said weakly.
Arania was by her bedside, “Your wound got infected,” she said, “You’ve been in and out of a fever for a week. The doctors said that you might not make it, but you kept hanging on.”
“What’s happening…. with the war?” Hikane asked.
“We’re under siege, here in the city. I think we’ve lost, Hikane. I think everything is lost. Everything that I’ve cared about… out of all of it, only you remain. I can barely see at all, now. Everything is blurry. I’m so frightened of being surrounded by darkness.”
Hikane sat up and brought her hand up to Arania’s face, “Don’t give up, Lady Arania. You’ve always been so strong. We’ll get through this, somehow.”
“You’re always full of hope,” Arania said, “My guiding light in these dark times…”
Hikane recovered over the next week, and soon she was back on her feet and healthy. Yet the siege worsened, and supplies in the city were desperately low. Hikane wanted to weep when she discovered that Arania had given her almost all her rations to help her recover.
Meanwhile, Arania’s sight deteriorated. Hikane paid a good doctor with food and gold to tend to her.
“I’m afraid this is not a natural loss of sight,” the doctor said, “This is some kind of poison. Somebody wanted to disable the great heroine of Aruni, and they’ve succeeded. Your vision is almost completely gone, and there’s nothing I can do.”
“But why? If they could slip poison into my food, why didn’t they just kill me?” Arania cried.
“If you died, you would become a martyr to the people, a symbol of resistance,” Hikane said, “It’s easier to disable you and see your ability dwindle. The people will lose faith and you’ll be out of the picture.”
“I can’t trust anybody any more,” Arania said, “Hikane, leave me. I want to be alone.” Hikane fled from the room.
“You may leave, Doctor,” Lady Arania said, “Speak of this to nobody. While I still have some vision, nobody need know.”
“As you wish,” he said.
A messenger found Hikane crying in the parliament gardens, “Hikane, Lady Arania requests your presence in her quarters immediately.”
Hikane wanted to refuse, wanted to be alone, but she knew she had to put it aside. Time was running out for them both. Everything they knew would soon be dust, the government destroyed, their freedoms gone, even the chance of having a relationship in public impossible. Their heads would be on sticks before the end of the week, like the two priestesses her brother had died trying to defend, if they didn’t flee and leave their country behind. While Hikane was ready to go, she knew convincing Arania to do so was nearly impossible.
But there was still now, and Hikane wanted to hold Lady Arania, just one time, to have a taste of what their lives could have been like in different circumstances.
Hikane knocked on the door, “Enter!” came Arania’s voice.
Hikane opened the door and closed it behind her. Arania was lying in her bed, the satin sheets barely covering her naked form. She sat up, letting the covers slide down her body. Her face was stained with tears.
Hikane felt a deep sorrow. She had never seen Lady Arania cry. She had always been a rock, holding strong through everything.
“I’m so sorry, Hikane,” Arania said, “I never meant to send you away. I’m just… so afraid. Like I’ve never been afraid before. I think you could probably adapt to life in the new world, but I cannot! Especially with no vision.”
“I’ll be your eyes,” Hikane said, “I won’t let you fall.”
“Then they’ll find out how much we love each other and they’ll kill us both.” Arania said.
Hikane felt her heart leap at the words. So Arania did truly love her in return. She wasn’t going to let the moment slip away.
“Arania… My love…” Hikane held Arania’s naked form tightly and kissed her lips with all the love and passion she’d been burning with since she met the female warrior. She parted finally and looked at Arania with boldness in her eyes.
“Let’s not think about tomorrow, Arania. We have today. You still have your vision today, and we still have our government today, and this time, now, is ours. Please…” Hikane pleaded.
Arania pulled Hikane down on the bed with her, and they covered each other in furious kisses. Hikane’s hands found Arania’s full, round breasts and held them, caressing and sucking on the nipples. She had dreamed many feverish dreams about touching Arania, and she let her fantasies go wild now, her hands eagerly exploring formerly forbidden territory. Arania was just as eager. Her fingers probed Hikane’s wetness, and Hikane let out a cry of pure pleasure as Arania teased her and played with her.
Wanting to go one better, Hikane kissed down Arania’s body and buried her face in her, her tongue finding Arania’s clitoris and lapping over it. Arania screamed with pleasure and came, and they switched positions, Arania as hungry to lick at Hikane.
After they had both come several times and sated their desire, they curled up in each other’s arms. Hikane let her head rest on Arania’s soft breasts, like she had done that day when Arania had embraced her shaking body. She felt safe there, secure and warm, caught in the afterglow of their lovemaking. She wanted it to last forever, but it could only be a moment for them, she knew.
Arania stroked Hikane’s hair, and felt an idea come to her “I know this will sound crazy, and it will probably condemn us both to death when the enemy gets their hands on the records, but…”
“What is it?” Hikane said, as Arania got up from her bed and started rifling through her possessions. She eventually found what she was looking for, and came back to the bed, a smile on her face. Hikane loved that smile, a rare sight in recent days.
“Hikane, will you marry me?” Arania said, opening her hand. Inside was a ring with a blue stone, “This ring was my mother’s,” she explained.
“Hikane looked at Arania, “You know what this means? If we do this, there’ll be no way to hide the fact that we’re a couple when they take over this city. We’ll have to go into exile.”
“I know,” Arania said, “But I don’t care. I want us to be married, while there’s still time. If you’ll have me as your wife…”
Hikane smiled and slipped a ring off her finger. Her brother had given it to her, a long time ago, but now, she wanted to give it to Arania, “Let’s do it, Arania,” she said, “But bear this in mind – when I do this, I mean it. Forever.”
“And I as well,” Arania said.
News of their marriage that same day spread through the castle like wildfire. Some thought they were a shining light in dark times. Others thought they were completely crazy for getting married when the country was at the brink of collapse.
Nonetheless, many turned out to their wedding at the temple. Lady Arania was dressed in her white armor, minus the helm, and her silver hair flowed out behind her. Hikane had borrowed a dress from a lady in the castle. They held hands as they walked through the temple, the eyes of their gods upon them. As they walked through, Hikane saw a statue of one of the hundreds of lesser gods, an old stooped man dressed in armor. She didn’t need to read the plate to know his name was Hazan, and that he had guided Hikane to Arania. She offered him a silent prayer of thanks as she stood before the priestess.
“Do you, Hikane, take Lady Arania to be your wife forever, through darkness and light, through joy and despair, until you pass onto the realm of the Gods?” the priestess recited.
“I do,” Hikane said, tears in her eyes.
“Do you, Lady Arania, take Hikane to be your wife forever, through darkness and light, through joy and despair, until you pass onto the realm of the Gods?”
“I do,” Lady Arania said.
They exchanged rings, and cheers rang out through the town as they passed through. The priestess looked at them with sadness in her eyes, knowing it was probably the last wedding she would ever conduct underneath the sight of the old gods. She hoped it would be a truly happy and long-lived one.
When Hikane woke, it was already sunset, her wedding bed was empty, and she found a vial of sleeping potion by her bedside. Fear broke through her joyful haze, and she got up and quickly and put on her clothing and armor. Stepping outside of her room, she saw that the castle was in mayhem, and she stopped a maid to ask questions.
“Where is my wife?” Hikane asked.
“I thought you were dead, Lady Hikane! Lady Arania took all the soldiers for a final assault, but she failed, and this country is now in the hands of Dezmeria. The Council is finishing the preparations for the final surrender. From what I have heard, Lady Arania is…”
Hikane couldn’t believe what she was hearing, and refused to let it sink in before she knew for sure. She hurried from the castle, pushing aside people and soldiers from both sides. People were gathering in the square, waiting for news of their fate as she hurried by. The dead and the dying lay in the gutters, but Hikane could think of nobody but her wife. How could Arania have gone to battle without her? Perhaps she had wanted to protect her but Hikane wanted to make her own choices, and she would have gladly stood at Arania’s side until the end. She would have died to protect her wife, but Arania had taken that choice away from her. She felt rage fill her, which quickly turned to sorrow. Her throat squeezed shut, and tears freely escaped her eyes. Still, she would not give up. Not ever.
She left the castle gates, and Dezmerian soldiers looked at her as a threat, but she held her hands up, and they left her alone.
The sight before her eyes made her turn away in revulsion. The dead and the dying lay in the field, the crows pecking at the dead. She found her eyes searching desperately for Arania’s white armor amongst all the gray and black and felt tears sting her eyes. The army had been completely annihilated. How could Arania still be alive?
She caught a glimmer of white and saw Arania being dragged to her feet by Dezmerian soldiers, battered, beaten and bloody. Her head hung, and her white hair lay bloodied over her face.
“Arania!” she cried out, “Arania!” She dived forward, racing over the bodies of the dead, not caring about any of them, just wanting to rescue Arania, to protect the woman she had sworn to love forever.
“Get off her!” Hikane cried, drawing her sword, “As long as I live, you won’t hurt my wife!”
“Wife?” One of the Dezmerian soldiers spat. “As far as Dezmeria is concerned, you cannot be married. You pagan rituals do not count for anything. She is our prisoner, so step aside or you will be harmed.”
“I won’t let you take her,” Hikane said, “Even if I have to die here on this field, I’ll fight for my wife. She is my wife, no matter what your laws say. Marriage is a commitment formed by the heart, a desire to be with somebody for the rest of your life. The ritual itself and the records of law mean nothing compared to that.” She raised her sword, “Now return her to me! I mean you no harm, I only mean to go into exile with her so we can live out our lives in peace.”
“Let the most valuable general of your land go so she can raise and army and come back to oppose us? I think not, child! Go home to your parents.”
“My parents are dead, and so is my brother. You killed everybody that meant something to me. I won’t let you kill Arania!”
“We don’t intend to kill her without a fair trial,” the Dezmerian said, “Contrary to your beliefs, we do have a system of law.”
“I don’t care!” Hikane said, “I don’t want to live under your rule or your gods! Now return her to me!”
Arania raised her head groggily, and Hikane saw the white filling her eyes. She was blind now, Hikane knew that for certain. Yet she was sure Arania had heard her.
“For Arania and Azuri!” Hikane cried, as she attacked the guards. At the same time, Arania struggled with her captors. Hikane took on two guards at once, her fear evaporating as she thought of her brother and how he had fought so bravely to protect the priestesses. He would have blessed the union of Hikane and Arania too, she knew, and fought to protect them as well. The knowledge filled her with courage, and her brother’s lessons in swordplay came back to her as she dodged a blade and stuck a sword in the one guard’s chest. The two holding Arania dropped her struggling form and draw their swords, rounding on her. Hikane pulled her sword from the dead guard and prepared to meet them. Arania was staggering around blindly, as Hikane engaged the soldiers. She parried two soldiers, but the other one dived forward and struck a blow to her wounded arm. She cried out and dropped her sword, falling back to the ground. One of the soldiers backed off to recapture Arania while the other two surrounded Hikane. She heard Arania cry out as the soldier grabbed her from behind and slapped her hard.
Hikane felt a fire tear through her, the same fire that she had felt in the tent when Arania was nearly raped. She had made an oath, long before her wedding vows to protect Arania with her life, and she would never give up on that promise. She rolled backwards, picking up a sword from the battlefield. Her arm burned, but she only let it make her stronger. She dived towards her two captors, slicing one in two with her sword, even as the other one smashed the pommel of his sword into Hikane, opening a wound across her face. Her eyes filled with blood, and the other soldier let go of Arania to come and help. Blinded, she wiped her eyes and spat out a tooth. She swung her sword again, and sliced the man’s head off. She turned as a kick caught her from behind, and she went flying to the ground, gasping for air. The man stooped to pick up a sword, and raised it to cleave Hikane in two when he let out a cry of pain. Hikane saw a sword jutting out from his chest, and he fell aside to reveal Arania standing there, a fierce look of love and determination in her cloudy, sightless eyes.
“You came for me,” Arania said, “Even though I wanted to keep you safe from all this, you still came to protect me. Thank you, Hikane.”
Hikane dived into Arania’s arms, “I made a promise, Arania. A simple sleeping potion wasn’t going to stop me. But how did you know that soldier was there?”
“My other senses have sharpened,” Arania said, “I’ve had time to adapt.”
“Why did you drug me?” Hikane said, “I gladly would have died for you, but you took the choice away from me! I was lucky the potion wore off in time.”
“I’m sorry,” Arania said, “I came to lead a last suicidal assault, with the last of my sight, but my eyes failed in the middle of battle. Everybody panicked, and the assault failed. I’m to blame for even more deaths. I should be dead, Hikane. I meant to die here. I didn’t want you to get hurt, hence the potion.” But somehow, despite all my failures, I’m still alive, while many good people are dead.”
“But you tried!” Hikane said, “These men and women chose to stand with you for the final battle, to defend their home! Now, we have to go, to spread the news of what happened here, to raise an army and return to force Dezmeria out!”
“Exile…” Arania said, “I always thought I would die in battle. I thought it was the only honorable end for a general. But maybe you’re right. Maybe, for all the people who died here today, we have to go into exile and come back another day. And you will lead the army that will free Azuri someday. I know it.”
“We have to go now, my love,” Hikane said, “Soldiers are already approaching.” She took Arania’s hand and led her through the bodies, to an abandoned horse that was roaming the field. Hikane mounted, with Arania holding her waist from behind, and they rode off into the day.
“I promise we’ll return,” Hikane said, “Someday, we’ll take our homeland back, and restore all the freedoms that made it truly great.”
“I promise too,” Arania said, “Thank you, Hikane. For showing me that my life doesn’t end with the loss of my vision and my country. That even in the darkest times, there is hope, and a reason to live.”