Flowers:Volume 1 Chapter 1
Chapter 1 - The White Lily
It was snowing.
The first flurry drifted down beneath a thick blanket of gray monotony. They fluttered through the chilly breeze, descending upon the cramped districts of Velikaya -- a walled trading city just upriver from the sea.
One of these flakes tumbled into a quiet, residential neighborhood. Skirting between steep, wooden roofs, it fell into a narrow, cobbled street, and landed upon the open palm of a thirteen year old girl.
She wore a modest, middle-class dress that hugged her slender shoulders and arms, then widened below her narrow waist and reached down to her ankles. Her hair was completely covered, tucked into an oversized, floppy wool hat. Only her small hands, thin neck, and innocent face lay exposed, with delicate features and skin so fair that they shone like flawless porcelain.
Lydia watched as the beautiful crystal melted against the warmth of her soft palm. Her large, sapphire eyes held a bitter, incriminating gaze. Winter was arriving early this year, and with it, hope dimmed for her dispossessed family.
Adjusting the wool hat that hid her snowy hair, Lydia clasped one hand over the other as she made a silent prayer to the Protectress of Samaran:
Please give us your blessing, Your Holiness.
It was said that the Goddess of Mercy observed all, able to fulfill the wishes of those most in need. But even though Velikaya was part of the Polesian Federation, Lydia was so far from the Samaran homeland that she wasn't sure if such a belief still held true.
Her Samaran mother had married a merchant, a normal human of Hyperborean-Polans cultural descent. Her father's business brought them two thousand kilopaces west to Velikaya -- one of the Polesian Federation's city-state principalities -- where her parents lived twenty years of joyful, married life.
Then disaster struck when her father's trading vessel capsized in a storm, taking his life with it. The legal requirement to reimburse the customers' loss bankrupted her family. Their home and savings became forfeit almost overnight, leaving Lydia, her mother, and two siblings homeless -- her youngest sister barely two years of age.
With the seasons changing and lacking adequate shelter, they all knew that the small Iliana was unlikely to survive the bitter, northern winter. However, that did not mean they could abandon her either. The local priest of the Holy Trinity would not help their kind. Meanwhile, a Samaran's conscience determined their spiritual inheritance upon reincarnation, and no soul could ever tolerate an evil as grievous as abandoning her own child.
A renewed breeze blew down the long, winding alleyway. The girl shivered as her eyes reopened to reality. The shadowy corridor ahead was almost empty as the early dusk fell. The taverns would be filled by guests soon. She needed to hurry.
Several copper kopeks per night was unlikely to afford a roof over their heads before the weather dipped below freezing. But the young girl needed some hope to cling onto. Perhaps if they all worked hard, they could also save enough money for a trip back to her maternal grandparents' home village in Samara once spring arrives.
Lydia turned into the final corridor between back alleys and the main, bustling street. In her rush, she didn't notice the figure just around the corner before bouncing off them. A gentle hand caught her before she fell to the ground, and the girl looked up at the stranger in a daze.
She was an older woman just barely into middle age. Her eyes were kind and her smile serene. Her very countenance seemed to exude the aura of someone wise and pure beyond reproach. Her slender body was clad in flowing, silky white robes -- a fluttery outfit that that should have left her shivering in the chill even with the enchantments that the magically-gifted Boyar aristocracy could afford. Yet her exposed hand, barely even pink from the cold, carried a rod of willow with leafy sprigs as though it was still spring.
But perhaps most importantly, she walked with her long, silver-white hair in the open -- a Samaran without any fear of unwanted attention.
"There is no rush, Lydia," the woman's soft voice rang pristine. "There will be room for you."
"H-how... how do you know my name?" The girl asked as her elder picked up the fallen hat and waved her hand over it, leaving the brown wool clean as new.
Lydia's eyes grew as the hat covered her white hair once more. Samaran mages -- or mystics, as other Samarans called them -- were rare, less than one in a hundred, whereas they numbered more than one in twenty for normal humans. Furthermore, the ability to craft spells often highlighted aristocratic heritage for humans. But among Samarans it revealed an individual's spiritual enlightenment in the great cycle of rebirth.
"I know a great deal about your family," the mysterious woman's smile was sweet and calming. "I know that your father never permitted himself to make a single dishonest deal, and that your mother donated a fifth of the family earnings every year to charity. I know that because the cargo of a prominent local noble was lost alongside your father's ship, the Merchant Guild was pressured into blacklisting your family, causing even your parents' longtime friends to keep their distance."
Lydia's eyes teared. Her father had always been gracious to his friends. Yet this was how they repaid him. Only one man bothered to offer a helping hand -- he provided the broken shed and meager rations that her family lived on at the moment.
"T-then, are you here to h-help us?" The teenage girl pleaded. Her father was a merchant after all. He must have had acquaintances in distant lands that she did not know.
"Yes," the woman beamed. "Though not directly. I could give you food or money, but it would only last a short period before your family returned to destitution. Instead, you must temper yourself for a lasting hope and aegis."
Lydia tilted her head with incomprehension. Was an 'aegis' edible? Could she sleep under it? Hope she already had, or at least clung onto, but it neither filled her stomach nor brought her warmth.
"Turn right when you reach the main road," the white lady continued. "Enter the third tavern to your left -- The Hydra's Lair. Go upstairs to the second floor and keep walking until you reach the end of the hallway. There, you will find a young man named Aleksei brooding over a drink. Ask him for a job, and he will offer you one with accommodations for your family."
Lydia had her doubts. She was an adolescent girl with neither training nor trade. What could she perform to keep her entire family safe? Apart from offering her innocence?
She shook her head. A Samaran mystic on the Path to Enlightenment would never deceive me.
"Thank you very much, Milady," Lydia gave an awkward curtsy. "May I ask for your name?"
The woman's smile grew mysterious. "Just a passerby who believes that good karma should be repaid in kind." Her gentle fingers then turned the thirteen year old girl around. "Now, hurry along or you'll miss him."
With glistening eyes and a thankful nod, Lydia ran towards the main street. By the time she reached it and spun around to wave, the narrow alley was empty once again.
The main street was busy even this late in the day. Lydia ran down the cobblestone side until she reached the tavern with an eight-headed green hydra sign. Bounding up the stairs, she went straight to the crowded second floor and scurried down the hallway.
Sure enough, there was a brooding young man at its end, sitting alone at a table with a tankard of liquor in hand.
He was an average-looking fellow, just around twenty years of age. His chin was still smooth, with short, auburn hair and a striking emerald gaze. His shoulders were neither lean nor broad, though they were covered by the finest furs that spoke of wealth. On his finger sat a small emerald ring with glowing green ether laced within -- the sign of a lesser hereditary noble or possibly even a baron's son.
Lydia gulped as she approached him before dipping in another poor imitation of a curtsy.
His troubled gaze looked irritated at the bother.
"I-I was told y-you were looking to hire a y-young girl," Lydia shakily spoke. "I w-wanted to see if I would qualify."
For a moment, the young man looked stunned with surprise. Then, with a half-snorted, derisive chuckle, he stood up and looked around the tavern's second floor, as though expecting someone to have played a joke on him.
Meanwhile, Lydia was frozen with apprehension, afraid that she had just humiliated herself before the completely wrong person.
"Sit down, girl," the young man requested as he returned to the pinewood table. "Who told you this?"
"A-ah... umm..." Lydia was stammering. How was she supposed to say that a random passing woman offered to help her with this?
The young man gave another half-snorted chuckle. "Nevermind... The Gods must be having their fun with me today."
So at least he's not Trinitian, she thought. That was a good start. Relations were much easier to manage when dealing with the local religions that didn't zealously adhere to the 'one true god'.
Between the Hyperborean and Polan Gods, the missionaries of the Holy Trinity, the Tanri devotees of the Sky-Father, and the Samarans who reincarnated through the Great Wheel, the Polisia Federation truly was a melting pot of religious belief.
"My name is Aleksei Lisitsyn," the young man leaned back with an amused smile. "What's yours?"
"L-Lydia... Lydia Shanina."
"You're a Samaran, aren't you?"
Lydia's eyes widened as she checked her hat.
"There's a strand of hair sticking out the back. White as the falling snow outside."
Her hand rushed behind her neck to search. Sure enough, there was a small bundle she failed to tuck inside.
The Protectorate of Samara was a region on the eastern side of the Polisia Federation. They joined and paid taxes to the Grand Principality of Ilmen in exchange for collective military defense. However, many of the northern human societies also saw the Samarans' temperate, passive nature as weakness and viewed them as second-class citizens.
Lydia fell sheepish as Aleksei gave her a long and silent stare. He then picked up his tankard and took a long swig in deep thought.
"I do have a position open, but I warn you -- it's not easy."
"I'm a hard worker and a good learner, Sir," Lydia pleaded. "My family badly needs money for food and shelter, and I'll work as hard as it takes to earn it."
"I'm sure," Aleksei smiled as he swirled his drink. "Grandpa said that you Samarans value conscience above all, which is why I'm considering it..."
He stared back up, his intense-green gaze locking her eyes to him.
"You see, my great-grandpa is at the end of his days. His health has deteriorated to the point that even the famous Samaran healers can no longer help him. He need help just to sit up on his bed, and barely even has the strength to swallow solids. It took the previous maid ten hours per day just to feed him two meals worth of food. He wets and soils the bed through the day and into the night, and throws tantrums to boot."
Aleksei sighed. "It's like caring for an infant, except one that weighs eight-and-a-half stones and has to be spoon-fed six times as much food. The maids won't do it seriously. They grow tired and bored after a few hours, becoming careless and even almost choking him one time. Meanwhile most of my family doesn't even care -- they're just waiting for him to leave and pass down his wealth and barony."
His gloved fingers curled into a fist atop the table. Pain and disappointment flashed through his emerald eyes at the negligence shown by his own relatives.
"But I'm the eldest great-grandchild whom he cherished and raised. My father has the devotion as well, but he's too often away on business. So it falls on me to see that Grandpa is taken care of properly."
Aleksei then took another swig. There was even a shadow of shame in his own gaze. Lydia could only guess that the task was laborious enough that even he himself could not stand it.
"I'll do it. Sir," the young girl declared in solemn assurance before he could even ask. "I'll make sure to do a good job at it as well."
That was how it began. Lydia's family moved into a cottage on the estate, while she and her mother took twelve-hour shifts between caring for the elderly baron and her younger siblings. Just feeding the man enough gruel took eleven and later twelve hours per day, leaving Lydia's back sore and feet aching every time. His fouled bedsheets had to be changed and cleaned four times per day, including at least once in the middle of the night. The slightest mistake or delay in any of these could spark his unpredictable tantrums. All the while she had to put on a happy smile and converse with the old man about his favorite topics in philosophy and history -- Lydia even received reading assignments that taxed her adolescent vocabulary to its limits.
...And just like that, nine exhausting months passed before Lydia grew worried again.
Despite her best efforts, Baron Lisitsyn's health had steadily deteriorated over time. He was entering his final days when he beckoned for Aleksei in Lydia's presence, and with a raspy voice he made his last request:
"Alek... if you've made your mind... then ask her today. Let this old man... see one last moment of joy."
Having been insomniac for months, Lydia stared back in blank confusion as Aleksei's glistening eyes met her gaze. Circling around the bed, he stood tall before the petite maid seven years his junior and took her small hand into his fingers.
"Lydia, I've never told you these months, but that day when we met at the tavern, I wasn't actually looking for a caretaker maid," he finally admitted with a prideful yet gentle grin. "You see... great-grandpa had one last wish before he left the world, and that was to see me marry..."
You're joking with me... The young girl's lips hung open.
"--Father had me meet with many candidates, but not a single one of them interested me. I wanted a wife who was responsible, tenacious, and intelligent as well -- and you've proven to be all of these in the past nine months."
This HAS to be a joke!
Lydia couldn't believe what she had just heard. She could feel the blood rushing to her head as he knelt down before her wide skirt. Her face promptly began to overheat as thoughts flooded into her exhausted and foggy brain.
"Lydia," Aleksei looked up at her through his deep, emerald gaze. "Would you marry me?"
For a moment Lydia swayed on weak knees. She thought she was going to faint.
"I-I-I'm only t-thirteen," she barely whispered.
Samarans reached adulthood at age sixteen just like ordinary humans, but they aged slowly after that and could easily live up to two hundred years. Meanwhile, human mages like Aleksei could reach just a few decades short of that. They almost never married before reaching their twenties.
"You'll be fourteen in three weeks' time," his head tilted with a cheery smile. "But I can also wait, until you're comfortable enough to offer me your love."
It took her a second to realize exactly what he meant, and her entire face burned scarlet in a flash.
She never did answer him. Her ability to speak had been lost completely in that moment. All she could do was nod, and again, and again...
It was only later that night, when she laid awake in his bed, wondering if she was dreaming, that Lydia finally realized the meaning of those words from the mysterious Samaran mystic months ago.
'Temper myself for a lasting hope and aegis,' the still-maiden bride smiled to herself in the darkness.
Nine months ago, her family had been torn asunder by an ill wind of fate.
Now, karma had returned it to her, with a greater warmth than ever.
----- * * * -----
Their marriage lasted five tender, joyous years, before fate turned her life upside down once more.
On a snowy morning, Lydia Lisitsyna stood just outside the entrance to the family estate. She had been waiting every morning for the mail to arrive before breakfast, for some news of what had happened to her husband at the front.
The air was well below freezing today. Her teeth were chattering as her fingers shakily opened the parchment letter. Her breathes soon hastened between exhaled puffs of steam, as her trembling eyes read through the contents of the news:
"...We regret to inform you that Aleksei Lisitsyn, Dmitriy Lisitsyn, and Mikhail Lisitsyn have died heroically in defense of the realm at the Battle of Terek. Due to the total destruction of the army at the hands of the barbarous invaders, no body or personal effects could be recovered..."
"Milady?" The doorway pushed open as her lady's maid stepped through. "His Lordship asked for you to..."
But Lydia never even heard her maid, whom -- as she was later told -- barely caught her in time as she cried out and collapsed into a hysterical fit of tears.
Back before the war, she and Aleksei had agreed that they were still too young to contemplate a child. Now, she would never have the chance to bear his children, to leave a legacy of the loving family that they could have shared.
Lydia stayed despondent in bed for three days and three nights after that, hugging Aleksei's favorite fur jacket stuffed with his pillow. She ate nothing and spoke to no one, her blank gaze unmoving even when her own crying mother begged her to eat something.
It had felt like everything that made her life worth living had died with him.
The lack of food and water slowly drove her towards delirium, yet the grieving girl did not mind. In fact, she welcomed it, for only then could she see Aleksei once more.
On the third day though, her father-in-law had enough.
"Yes! He's gone! Now pull yourself together!" Radomir pulled the jacket-wearing-pillow from her arms and tossed it aside. It was the only thing that could make her react.
Lydia glared back with bloodshot eyes. She barely even registered the face of her father-in-law. His hair had gone completely gray in just a few nights. Meanwhile his gaze -- the same emerald-green as Aleksei -- was filled by pain and anguish.
They betrayed the bottomless agony that only a father who had just lost all three of his sons could experience.
He was also in uniform, the same blue-and-white design that Aleksei had wore before he rode off to war. Radomir was just over ninety, which for a mage puts him in the final years of his adult prime. He was a veteran of the last war fought nearly thirty years ago, which showed as a Major's insignia on his shoulders. The only reason he hadn't left for the front already was because he had been on a diplomatic mission to the Inner Sea Imperium, returning only earlier this week.
"My son did not wed a useless woman capable of only weeping in bed!" He growled at her before slamming a piece of parchment upon her comforter-covered lap. "If you cannot accept the fact that he is gone, then at least do something about it! Take up arms! Take revenge! See that my son did not fight and die in vain!"
With her fingers shaking, Lydia picked up the parchment and glanced over it.
It was a recruiting poster, calling upon the people to take revenge for the bloody atrocities committed by the invaders in this war. Lydia had no interest in the extravagant, bellicose words. However, just below the call-to-arms, there was an unusual mention that sucked in her attention:
'Priority assignment offered to war widows and orphans between the ages of eighteen and thirty.'
Her fingers twitched as they began to squeeze together once more. Beneath them, the parchment crumbled as they clenched into fists of newfound resolve.
In less than two hours' time, Lydia would ride into the city and sign her name at the garrison barracks.
She had attended two years of higher learning alongside Aleksei at the Ilmen Academy. Her focus had been in 'Infrastructure Engineering' -- fancy terminology for a cross-disciplinary studies aimed at training engineering project aides and coordinators. She had hoped that it would help Aleksei's dream of becoming a master civil engineer. Now, after his death, she would put it to a new use, as her educational background qualified her enrollment directly into the officer corps.
On that day, Lydia became the first Samaran woman to don the uniform of a lieutenant in armies of the Polesian Federation.
----- * * * -----
Lydia watched from the assembly's front line as the gruff-looking, square-jawed Major with salt-and-pepper hair huffed to his superior:
"We don't even have enough of these wagons for the boys, and you want me to teach girls how to use them?"
"I should remind you that when the Hyperboreans first arrived to govern our lands, they brought along not just male warriors, but Shieldmaidens as well," the doubly-promoted Colonel Radomir Lisitsyn contended. "I see no reason why we should not revive the old traditions in these troubled times."
The Major, however, sighed with a clear scowl of disapproval:
"The noblewomen, I can understand. They have their houses' honor to defend and magic to arm themselves. Even the yeomen at least have some magical heritage, even if their affinity is weaker. But these girls... they're mostly just commoners--!"
"They're also the most qualified we have. All of them passed the basic tests with flying colors," Lydia's father-in-law interjected stiffly.
"Enough, Major! You have your orders, and they come straight from Coalition Central. I suggest you take action instead of standing here waxing excuses."
Radomir didn't even wait for a response before striding off. He left the disgruntled Major with no choice but to return and face the new company of recruits, assembled into formation on the snowy training field.
"What are those of you smirking about!?" the old veteran growled as he strode along the front ranks. "So you scored well on a physical and test of common sense. Well wipe those sorry smiles off your faces because I couldn't give a shit! Your scores say nothing about your ability to cope on the battlefield. When the Eastlings' arrows whistle past your ears and plunge into your comrades' pretty faces. When their dying screams reach your ears and you realize that you were two hairs short of being killed yourself! What will you do!? You will cower! Your will run! Then as soon as you turn away from the enemy, their arrows will drill into your backs and murder you!"
Anger flashed in his eyes as the Major continued to huff out clouds in the cold. He stared across ranks of new recruits as though daring them to say otherwise.
"Caspi, Astra, and now Terek! We should have the advantage in both men and materiel. We should be attacking and punishing this so-called 'Imperium of the Great Khan' for their transgressions and barbarism! Yet we're the ones losing! One defeat after another! Nearly two hundred thousand dead to an invasion force of less than fifty thousand! It's a disaster! An absolute, fucking disgrace!"
He pulled off the wool cap with his only hand -- his left forearm was missing altogether -- and crumbled it before throwing it against the ground.
"--And if you don't do better, you'll just become the next pile of meat strewn across the battlefield!"
No one else dared to make a sound. The snowy training ground was plunged into an almost eerie silence. Meanwhile the Major closed his eyes and had to take several breaths to calm himself down.
As his shoulders steadied, he waved towards five small wagons sitting around thirty steps before the formation. Four of them were horseless, elevated wooden platforms with a hand crank replacing the rear wheels. A fifth was still attached behind two resting war steeds. Mounted on the back of each carriage was a light ballista atop a swivel turret.
"Those," he pointed out, "are what they sent you girls here to learn and practice on." His breath still fumed as he paced before the recruits. "The Tachanka is our Principalities' finest weapon of war. They're expensive, complex, and time-consuming to build. Our best weaponsmiths toil day and night to give us only a few dozens per month, so I assure you all," his dark eyes narrowed, "not one of them will be wasted by incompetent weaklings who fail to meet my every expectation!"
"You, girl," the Major stopped before Lydia, whose snowy hair stuck out like a sore thumb among the hundred-fifty-ish new recruits. He jabbed two fingers into her lower shoulder: "what can you tell me about them?"
"Sir!" Lydia straighten her chest. Her tension manifested as she began in voice that bordered on yelling: "the Tachanka bolt-repeater carriage is a light war wagon armed with a repeating scorpion torsion-spring ballista! When in motion, the rear axle transmits torque to an inner shaft, which in turn drives a windlass chain beneath the ballista stock to crank back the drawstring to its safety catch. The scorpion has an maximum, parabolic shot range of six hundred paces and is fed by two ten-bolt magazines in a 'V'-shaped loadout. Together, the wagon requires a crew of three and can maintain an effective shooting rate of fifteen bolts per minute!"
"Exactly as the manual," the Major acknowledged with a sour slant on his lips. "Now hop on and show me if you can shoot as well as you can memorize."
Lydia stepped out from the front rank and strode towards the center, elevated carriage, only to be called out by the Major once more:
"This one," he went to the vehicle behind the horses. "I'll drive."
But the training manual says to use a immobile platform at the beginning... Lydia's scowled. Nevertheless, she walked over and climbed onto the wagon bed.
She was barely aboard when he took the reins and drove the horses into motion. A sharp turn almost sent her tumbling back off. The instructor turned the wagon perpendicular to the row of targets -- rudimentary scarecrows consisting of just bundles of hay, each tied to a single pole.
"Range at hundred paces. Load and shoot!"
"Yes, Sir!" Lydia acknowledged as she griped the handlebars at the back of the scorpion's metal stock, trying to stay steady as the wagon bounced across the field of frozen earth covered by light snow. She braced her feet against the wagon-bed's sides before reaching to the front to grab a wooden magazine's handle. A quick shake told her that the messenger-bag-sized box was loaded. She then released the scorpion's handlebar to lift the heavy magazine with both hands, attempting to shove it into its slot.
"W-woah," she swayed in the back, almost falling off as the instructor forced the horses into a sudden weave. Unlike the Gulyay-Gorod heavy battle wagons, The Tachanka sacrificed armor for a surprising degree of agility on its four wheels. Now, he made the most of it in trying to rattle her.
Lydia wasn't sure if the Major picked on her for being a Samaran -- with their conflict-averse reputation -- or if it was because of her Lisitsyna surname, which would make her failure an indirect slap against his superior. However, she had spent several childhood trips aboard her father's vessel. It would take more than a rocking floor to scare her.
Pulling herself back to a steady footing, she leaned against the ballista and rammed the magazine into its slot. Her hands returned to the handlebars as she heard the repetitive clicking from beneath the stock. The bow's limbs were already cocked and the windlass now snapped against its safety.
She swiveled the scorpion towards its target and pulled the double trigger on the handlebars. The limbs released their tension and hurled a steel bolt longer than her forearm out of its flight groove. The first shot was always for rangefinding, and she took note as the projectile overflew the scarecrow by a good eight paces.
Right. I'm the one moving fast this time, she thought back to the various snowball fights she had with her playful little brother and adjusted her aim. This time, it would be for real.
The wagon continued to sway and jerk as the instructor intended, but Lydia kept her calm and focused only on her targets. Her fingers pulled the trigger as soon as she heard the first click, and with each shot her bolts soared closer to her target.
Her fourth bolt became the first that violently punched through the scarecrow, shattering its central shaft as the armor-piercing tip made direct contact. The power was more than enough to smash through a wooden shield and kill the man behind it.
Lydia made no expression as her intense focus switched to the next target and pulled as she heard the first click. This time, it took only three shots to destroy the scarecrow. By the time her magazine emptied after the tenth shot, she had destroyed a third and was ranging the fourth.
"Enough!" The Major drove the wagon back to the platoon before hopping off the driver's seat. "Have you operated a ballista or crossbow before?"
"No, Sir. Though I learned the function of torsion engines at the Ilmen Academy -- I studied Infrastructure Engineering there," Lydia answered straight, still standing on the wagon. "Maintenance is the hard part, but operation is easy. Just point, shoot, and re-adjust for projectile fall and momentum. The target is immobile and the wind is negligible, which makes it considerably easier."
His eyebrows went up before his lips twisted with begrudging acceptance:
"No wonder why they made you an officer despite your total lack of magical aptitude..."
In other words, the Major knew that despite her marriage into an aristocratic family, Lydia was not even yeomen, but came from the mercantile class with a pure commoner birth. Knowledge of spellcraft was an art that could be learned and mastered. However an individual's capacity to refine and shape ether was predetermined by the magic-conductivity of their nerve pathways. Lydia could study all she wanted about sorcery and spellcraft, but she would never be able to manipulate the spiritual forces herself.
"--You're a natural shot though, and with practice you'll only grow better," her instructor gave the slightest, encouraging nod. "Now, back in formation with you."
"Yes, Sir!" She saluted before leaping off the wagon-bed.
Meanwhile, the Major returned to facing the recruits and began shouting with a disdainful glare once again:
"Every Tachanka requires the perfect teamwork between three individuals -- driver, loader, and marksman. The driver must keep eyes on both where they are going and where the enemies are. The loader is charged with both the warding runestones and must constantly feed the scorpion with fresh ammo to keep it shooting. But the most demanding role is the marksman, who doubles as the vehicle commander! Therefore, they must have not only good dexterity and spatial awareness, but also the composure and clarity of mind to accurately assess the battlefield at all times!"
So that was just part of his usual test, Lydia realized at last.
The Major did expect her to fail; there was no doubt about that. But he also wasn't strict just because she was a commoner woman. Even if she had been a magic-blessed nobleman, she doubted that he would have made it any easier. In the end, his prejudice stemmed from his pride as a professional soldier. He was afraid that such 'substandard recruits' would not be able to meet his high expectations, which would only further shame his identity with another dismal failure on the battlefield.
"Now! We'll begin by assessing which of you are fit to both lead and shoot, and which of you are better served to focus on one task!" He shouted before calling the first squad forward.
Lydia examined the girls as they took their positions, all of whom were grim-faced with eyes hardened by resolve. Every woman here had lost someone dear to them in the war. There would be no one better to prove to the Major just how wrong his presumptions were.
----- * * * -----
"In war, there is no gender! Everyone dies equally!"
Lydia was organizing her belongings when she heard a feminine voice mock in feigned baritone. It came from just outside her small cabin, and grew closer as it dropped to a youthful pitch:
"...No wonder why Major Genderless still isn't married."
"He thinks a little blood might scare us, when we spend several days bleeding every month," another girl's voice came with a snort. "And if he believes the pained cry of a wounded soldier is terrible, then I ought to introduce him to a mother at childbirth."
"Maybe the highborn ladies he meets are too delicate for the battlefield, seeing as they never do their own chores and have magic to help with everything," the first voice added in annoyance. "But we common folk know what it's like to endure and toil for our lives every day!"
Striding to the entrance, Lydia opened the cable door and found herself staring straight at two surprised girls; the first of whom already had one foot on the wooden steps.
The two of them promptly dropped their bundles and saluted.
"We don't mean you, Milady," the first girl hastily added. She was a petite and rather cute brunette, with wavy hair and an immature face that still held baby fat on both cheeks. "Everyone already knows that you were one of us who married into the nobility."
"Gossip sure travels fast around here..."
Lydia tried to look stern, but her expression came out more dour than anything else.
"Sorry, Milady," added the other girl, in her early twenties with brown hair, a modest height, and two pimple-laden cheeks beneath her dim, sleep-deprived eyes. "It wasn't her intention to remind you of your loss."
"We've all lost dear family members. Isn't that why we're here?" The younger girl added as emerald embers flickered in her gaze. "Loss and revenge are feelings that we all share and understand. Don't you agree, Milady?"
Her frankness, voiced without a trace of dejection, brought a faint scowl to Lydia's lips.
Yes. But not all of us are past grieving...
"Excuse me, Milady," miss pimples rushed to change the topic. "But do you need us for something? The officers' cabins are over that way."
With a deep sigh, Lydia softened her expression:
"It's fine to just call me Lydia. If we're to be sharing a wagon together like family, then there's no reason for the extra formalities or distance. Every other wagon's crew in our platoon shares the same lodging. Why shouldn't we?"
"And this is why you're one of us, none of that stiff holier-than-thou," the petite brunette stepped up and offered her hand with an almost-infectious smile. "I'm Kaleriya. 'Kalya' for short. Pa taught me the reins since I was seven. You can rely on me as your driver for sure!"
"And I'm Aleksandra, or just 'Sasha'," the tired-looking older girl added with a polite smile and an offered hand as well. "Always wondered why my parents gave me a name so lofty, when they were both in service and I grew up to become a kitchen maid. Feels like fate that I'm here."
"Old friends?" Lydia surmised as she shook both hands.
"Since she found me poaching on the estate as a child and offered me food instead," Kalya grinned.
"Lucky to have you two then..."
Lydia's attempt to sound enthusiastic came out as stiff as her face. She even tried to conjure a smile, but her facial muscles just weren't cooperating.
"Just remember -- every officer is a 'Sir' in the military. With an instructor like ours, the other ladies might not take kindly to being addressed differently."
Stepping outside to help the two with their baggage, Lydia soon noticed that the two girls had managed to circumvent the 'personal belongings' limitation of two bags per person. They had packed four cloth-wrapped bundles that were almost as wide as their shoulders. Lydia barely managed to pick up just one by straining both arms. How the two managed to carry a bundle in each hand was beyond her.
'Perhaps I truly have been a 'lady' for too long...'
"Just what in the world did you two pack!?" Lydia huffed as she dropped her load inside. Even a handful of paces had left her winded.
The two friends glanced at each other before simply smiling back.
"The one thing our village's veterans claimed to always lack when they were serving."
It didn't take long before Lydia stopped complaining. A good half of the luggage turned out to be food from home -- everything from cheese to gourmet bread. Lydia wasn't sure about how lawful their origins were. But one thing was for certain: Sasha certainly made sure that she didn't work in the kitchen for nothing.
As for the rest? Well, both of the girls had also packed their best dress, shoes, and even a stuffed animal.
It made Lydia wonder if the two truly understood just what the military was for.
"Oh devil, I forgot soap," Lydia cursed as she finished organizing her belongings.
"Don't they have some?" Kalya asked from her bed. The petite girl had haphazardly strewn her stuff about before sitting down to chitchat.
"They have the usual, which always burned my skin since I was little," Lydia sighed regretfully as she sat down, smoothing out her field skirt as she did.
"Wow, you are a lady."
Lydia tilted her head as she stared back. But Kalya's earnest smile showed no sign of mockery, only teasing.
"It's not that uncommon for girls, nor something that costs too much money..."
"Sure, but the rest of us eventually grow out of it after a few years of rashes. What did you sleep on, silk?"
Lydia blushed. Her father had bought imported cotton linen for her when younger, and Alek always thought that her skin was too nice to waste and had added silk sheets on top.
"We could... just go fetch some from the nearby town," a mumble came from Sasha, her head still buried into her pillow.
The girl had collapsed into bed the moment she filed away all her belongings. Lydia thought that she fell asleep at first, but that proved wrong as Sasha kept shifting from time to time.
"That's right. We did see it on the trip here," Kalya clasped her hands with a joyful grin. "Probably only two hours by horse."
"A round trip would consume the whole morning," Lydia scowled. "Major Balykin would never allow that."
"Just sneak out at night then," another mumble emerged from Sasha's pillow.
"That's in direct violation of the rules!"
"So?" Sasha rolled her pimpled cheeks back up. "Kalya can pick a store's lock. We can leave the money. Major Buttface can't patronize us over what he doesn't know."
"Pffft," Kalya cracked up. "Buttface! His butt must be a real square then!"
"A perfect bench cushion, in fact," Sasha declared straight as she sat up, which promptly sent the petite Kalya into fits of laughter.
Even Lydia almost smiled. Almost. Her mouth had twitched into an alien shape instead.
"And here I thought you were the more responsible one," her head shook.
It made Lydia wonder about the real reason why Sasha looked so sleep-deprived.
"If Milady is afraid of dirtying her dress, then your humble servants shall quest for your soap instead," Kalya bounced up to give an exaggerated bow.
"I need some more sheep wool myself," Sasha raised her hand. "My period is coming and I always run too heavy for rags alone."
Seeing as the two girls were already decided, Lydia pursed her lips and exhaled a deep sigh.
"Fine." Her response was terse. "I'll go with you. What kind of team would we be if I let you two get into trouble while I kept my own hands clean?"
"Thought you'd say that," Kalya grinned.
With Lydia making plans and preparing over the next two days, their night escapade later that week was completed without a hitch. It became the first of their weekly, night-time outings to fetch goods that their comrades at camp lacked -- often herbal and hygiene supplies that the men deemed unnecessary but the women felt was necessary.
Kalya had begun calling their group the 'Fragrant Trio' because of this.
The name soon became known by all the women in camp. The respect it gathered from female soldiers, combined with Lydia's natural shooting prowess, her schooling in team organization, and her composure under pressure, would eventually lead Major Balykin to name her company commander.
So as the time came for the newly organized 4th Velikaya Cavalry Division to march, Major Balykin called Lydia in for one last lesson. For as much as the maimed Major would like to, he was not allowed to lead the girls into combat.
"Don't think that I don't know about your night-time mischief," the gruff veteran added as he passed Lydia her new captain-rank epaulets.
"The best officers are not just obedient, but also know when to ignore rules and take initiative into their own hands," his weathered countenance returned a knowing smirk. "Remember that."
"Yes Sir," Lydia saluted. She had never guessed that the Major had this side to him. "Thank you, Sir."
Then, as she spun her heels and was just about to march out...
"And Captain -- I know the rumors about me, but just so you know..."
Major Balykin unbuckled his collar and reached in. His remaining hand pulled out a thin, silvery chain threaded through two golden wedding rings.
"In war, everyone dies equally," he declared once more in a somber voice. "Focus on your duty, and not just your girls. Only by knowing when to be callous, can you save the most lives in the end."
There was a cold, regretful light in his eyes, and Lydia wondered if she would ever learn what had truly occurred.
She certainly did not anticipate just how soon his advice would come to use.
----- * * * -----
"We have to help them!" Kalya was almost begging as she watched the massacre continue just three hundred paces away.
"No!" Lydia reached forward to stop her driver. "If we ride out now, then we're just as dead as they are!"
Their newly trained 4th Velikaya Cavalry Division was one of five divisions -- over 45,000 men and women -- sent to relieve the besieged principality/city of Seym. However, instead of arriving as the rescuers, the entire corp had been surrounded by Eastlings not long after they crossed onto the Desna River's east banks.
The Polesians had assembled a massive wagon circle in defense using the infantry's Gulyay-Gorods. These were eight-wheeled, heavy battle wagons with timberclad bulwarks built like battlements. With shooting embrasures and ballistas mounted front and back, they formed an outer defense line with gaps left in between for the cavalry to use.
However, every attempt to sally out had been defeated thus far. After two days beneath the sweltering summer sun, the army was running out of water. Meanwhile, swarms of nomadic horse archers rode around the trapped Polesian force, raining fire arrows and slung incendiaries in to add to their torment.
Twelve hundred Polesian Demi-Lancers had charged out from the porous ring of Gulyay-Gorod armored battle wagons just minutes ago. Lydia's divisional commander, General Obolensky, had believed that the enemy horse archers approached too close and thus presented an opportunity. However, the Eastlings' small, nimble mounts easily retreated to sidestepped the charge. Hundreds of nomadic horsemen poured into the area from each flank in response, enveloping the lancers on the open plains just as they trapped herds of prey.
Then, with an echoing cry in the eastern tongue, the slaughter began.
The warriors of the Great Khanate emptied their quivers at a jaw-dropping rate, each composite bowman hurling ten arrows per minute into the air. Thousands of arrowheads fell upon the Polesian counterattack like a summer storm, collapsing the demi-lancers' charge as scores of horses died by the second. Spell-infused arrowheads churned the earth and blew gaping holes through the formations' wards, clearing the way for wind blades that sliced through man and horse alike. Riders toppled and spilled onto the ground in hundreds, as the entire assault force unraveled like a breaking tide.
The nomads aimed for the mounts first, to thwart any chance of retreat back to the main group. Stranded and disorganized, the dismounted riders who picked themselves off the ground never stood a chance.
Lydia could only watch as the invaders turned her countrymen into pincushions. Arrows pierced the chests and faces of grounded cavalrymen until their morale shattered. Officers sank onto their knees in death as wooden shafts protruded from their body armor like porcupines. Blood spurted into the air as the nomadic light cavalry charged into the mayhem. They rode down the fleeing soldiers with flashing sabers and thrusting lances, while isolated squads and platoons that tried to stand their ground were cut down by criss-crossing showers of arrows.
As a witness to their final destruction, she could feel the hopeless terror that seized the minds of those doomed men.
"Captain!" Lydia's signal officer -- a mage dedicated to maintaining the Farspeak communication spell with regimental command -- yelled from a light ammunition wagon that followed the Tachankas into combat. "Major Stroganov has been killed. Colonel Lisitsyn promotes you to battalion command!"
Lydia didn't even need to ask for details. Her direct superior -- Major Stroganov -- had been attached to her sister company when the battle began. An impetuous cadet still in his teens, he had lead the 17th Tachanka company out from the wagon circle in an attempt to help the cavalry when their charge buckled. But a dense arrow barrage killed a third of his wagon crews before he even made it a hundred paces, causing the rest to retreat in disarray.
Looking over her segment of the wagon circle, Lydia could see that the infantry guarding the armored battle wagons were already shaken. The visceral bloodbath that they were witnessing left them stunned and quaking. It would only take one massed charge to send these common conscripts into panic and death.
...And with the slaughter almost complete, the barbarian cavalry turned to advance on the wagon ring once more.
"Kalya, turn southeast -- parallel and just behind the Gulyay-Gorods!" Lydia directed her driver. "We must support the infantry or those barbarians will overwhelm this line!"
"Yes Sir! Ya!" Kalya reined the horses straight into a canter.
"TACHANKA!" Lydia stood straight and bellowed with every bit of strength that her parched throat could muster. "SINGLE COLUMN! FOLLOW ME!"
The greatest flaw with of the Tachanka bolt-repeater wagon was that unless its wheels were turning, its reload mechanism did not work and therefore could not sustain shooting. But to move out from the huge ring of Gulyay-Gorods was suicide. They had to stay behind the protection of those heavy wagons' thick, timberclad armor and wards.
Swiveling her scorpion-ballista towards the enemy, Lydia squeezed both triggers just as a gap between the heavy wagons left her view open. An armor-piercing bolt bearing the Inferno rune flew out towards a squad of enemy horsemen. By the time the next wagon passed and she saw them again, three of the horses had collapsed onto the ground in flames.
"POLESIANS! STAND AND FIGHT! SHOW THE GODS NOT YOUR BACKS, BUT YOUR BRAVERY AND YOUR MIGHT!"
Each of the Gulyay-Gorod wagons had either two ballistas or springals of its own, backed up by at least one squad of crossbows and another of spears. The sound of scorpion bolts soaring past their heads woke the stunned troops from their stupor. A deadly exchange began between Lydia's Tachanka battalion and the Eastling cavalry archers, and the Polesian infantry caught in between had no choice other than to fight or to die.
"TO YOUR POSITIONS!" The infantry officers added their own cries. "CROSSBOWS SHOOT AT WILL!"
Lydia pulled the trigger as soon as she heard the telltale 'click' from the windlass. Another bolt launched from the flight groove and arced into a horse-archer squad. But this time, the projectile struck an invisible ward and its rune detonated prematurely, enshrouding the air in a cloud of flames but leaving the horsemen untouched.
They were no longer facing light harassing cavalry that lacked magical support. These were the Eastlings' veteran troops.
"Penetrator magazine," Sasha, her loader, replied before shoving a new box into the ballista. "Loaded!"
The faintly-blue bubble protecting Lydia's Tachanka flared as an incoming arrow discharged its anti-magic. But their Aegis ward held on, and two trailing arrows bounced harmlessly aside. Sasha then slammed her fist on the next runestone installed on the wagon's front rail, refreshing the arcane bubble that protected them all.
The Tachanka behind them, however, was not so lucky. An arrow crashed through the wards and into the driver, leaving the girl regurgitating blood with a shaft through her neck. The vehicle veered off course and rammed into one of the armored battle wagons, upending the smaller Tachanka and crushing its marksman against the wooden bulwark.
Further behind, an entire Gulyay-Gorod blew apart as an explosive arrow struck its ward-stripped, timberclad armor with a thunderous boom. The resulting sonic burst shattered the wooden bulwark and sprayed jagged splinters all over its screaming crew.
"I said: LOADED!" Sasha yelled again, this time into Lydia's face.
With her focus back on her weapon, Lydia's eyes burned with the ire of vengeance. She pulled the triggers again and again, launching out one bolt after another into the roaming swarms of barbaric horsemen.
Sasha had filled each magazine to her specification, and the 'penetrator' configuration featured enchanted rangefinder bolts on its first, fourth, and seventh shot. Glowing red with a Dispel rune-pebble installed behind the steel penetrator tip, the rangefinder bolts both highlighted the trajectory-to-target and released its magic upon impact -- a blast of unstable ether that destabilized any defensive wards to clear the way for follow up shots.
It took but forty seconds for the magazine to empty again, its contents soaring out to pluck lives with their deadly steel tips.
"Full turn!" Lydia ordered while Sasha loaded yet another cartridge. "Drive back at parallel route!"
She gripped the Tachanka's side as the vehicle took a sharp bank, then settled on a reciprocal heading to avoid collision as the ammunition wagon rode up.
"Their attack is shifting north, Sir!" The signal officer yelled from its back while a logistical trooper tossed Sasha a bundle of bolts. "The enemy has broken through our southwestern front! Colonel Lisitsyn requests us to ride north and join General Kurakin's breakout!"
"North!?" Lydia spun around, her expression aghast. "What about these men holding our eastern front?"
The female signal officer made a grimace. Only the mounted troops held the necessary mobility to escape. It was clear that the infantry had already been written off as a lost cause.
"Liliya! Look! East-by-southeast!"
Kalya's cry summoned Lydia's attention back to the dry grasslands outside the wagon ring. Then, as they passed another gap between the heavy wagons, she saw the unusual sight.
There was a small grassy knoll over a kilopace to their east, and upon its peak stood a few dozen dismounted troops. Several of those soldiers just lowered billowing grass-green flags and raised red banners with unknown symbols in their stead.
Military formations of company-level and above usually had their own signal officer to link with regimental and divisional commands. But aside from platoons which exclusively used visual and audio orders, even the larger military units used flags and blowing horns as supplementary forms of communication.
"That's a forward command post!?"
"It has to be!" Sasha confirmed.
"And their defending cavalry is riding off!" Kalya added.
Sure enough, the two hundred or so cavalry kept in reserve at the bottom of the hill were riding north as they spoke. The enemy commanders must have learned of General Kurakin's breakout and were redeploying forces in response.
"The General will never succeed if this keeps up!"
Lydia immediately recognized the danger. If the Eastlings could pull enough horsemen together, then General Kurakin would meet the same fate as the twelve-hundred Polesian lancers from earlier. They would be encircled and destroyed in the open once they left the wagon circle's 'fortifications'.
However, General Kurakin was no mere division commander. He was the leader of this entire army. His failure would doom any chance of escaping the trap, leading to the death of every man and woman, including her own father-in-law.
"We have to attack their command and draw their attention away from the main breakout!" Lydia decided. "If our main cavalry strength is destroyed, then there is no hope left for anyone!"
She exchanged looks with both Sasha and Kalya, both knowing just what her demand would entail. To draw the nomads' attention after leaving the wagon ring was tantamount to jumping into the fire. It was very likely that none of them would come back out of it alive.
"Dead or alive Liliya, we're with you till the end," declared Kalya, the youngest of them at barely eighteen.
"For our father, brothers, and husband -- let's show these Eastlings what we're made of!" Sasha nodded firmly in response.
With her eyes glistening, Lydia bit down on her lip and nodded back in appreciation. If this was truly the road to their demise, then she couldn't have picked better traveling companions.
"TACHANKA!" Lydia bellowed as Kalya slowed their vehicle in preparation. "FORM UP FOR ATTACK!"
"THIS IS CAPTAIN LISITSYNA TO ALL BRAVE POLESIANS! MOUNT EVERY HORSE! AND FOLLOW ME!"
Then, with a sharp turn, Kalya swerved their Tachanka out from the porous ring of Gulyay-Gorods. Dozens of ballista wagons followed all along the front, soon joined by mounted crossbow infantry as they took the reins of the remaining draft horses and followed suit. Even the ammunition wagons stopped briefly to take infantrymen aboard.
The men did not betray Lydia's expectation -- as few of them could bear cowardice when a girl lead the attack.
Looking ahead, she noticed that the Eastlings' cavalry was completely out of position now. Only a few squads of harassing horse-archers stood between them and the grassy hill.
"FOR OUR FAMILIES! FOR OUR HOMELANDS!" Lydia drew her arming sword and flourished it in the air. "CHARGE!"
----- * * * -----
"The Farspeak link is still active, Sir! There's just been no reply!"
"Devil be damned, Lydia. Respond!" Colonel Radomir Lisitsyn cursed. Riding near the front of nearly eight thousand light and heavy cavalry, he could only squeeze the handle of his five-pace long lance to relieve his stress.
"Ask again! Keep asking until she damn replies!"
For the next minute, Radomir's signal officer simply rode beside him in silence. The aged Lisitsyn -- first in line of succession to the barony -- could only think about the earful of screams he received before leaving home:
"--Oh shut up! You don't care about her! You don't care if she lives or dies at all! All you care about is taking revenge for your sons, and you would throw anyone -- even their own beloved -- into the fire to exact your vengeance!"
Those words from Lydia's mother echoed in his mind again and again. He could not even deny it, because he knew they were right. Lydia's well-being had not concerned him at all when he provoked his daughter-in-law into enlisting. And now, when her life hung on the precipice between life and death, it was far too late to reverse what he had done.
After all, Lydia wasn't like the rest of the family. She was a Samaran, not a devotee of the Stormlord whose brave souls were bound for the Golden Halls. Radomir couldn't pretend to understand how the Samarans' 'spiritual reincarnation' functioned, but he had heard that there were consequences for them should they take the life of another.
"Sir!" His signal officer responded at last. "Captain Lisitsyna wishes you the best of luck and... and she..."
"Spit it out!" Radomir growled at the reluctant and stuttering young yeoman.
"S-she asks you to tell your son -- when you do see him in the Golden Halls -- that she'll always love him."
Radomir felt as though a boulder had just slammed into his chest.
How could he face his son with those words? When he and his wife would never meet again? Aleksei would never forgive him for this, not even in the abundance of the afterlife!
"We're almost there!" He heard a hopeful cry erupt from the soldiers ahead.
"Once over that ridge, we'll be on our way!"
The Polesian light cavalry screening both flanks were still exchanging shots with the Eastling horse archers. But General Kurakin's attempt to break out of the encirclement seemed to have caught the enemy off-guard. Only two thousand or so enemy horsemen could be found in the area, and they could hardly stop the massive formation that was plowing its way out. Hostile reinforcements were rushing in from all across the front lines, but they would not arrive in time to plug the gap before the escape.
Unfortunately, that also meant that anyone who remained behind -- including Lydia -- was doomed.
Then, as Radomir led his lancers over the hill crest, his jaw dropped.
Ahead of them stood ten solid blocks of fresh cavalry reserves, all readied in formation with the Great Khan's banners flying.
The Polesian commanders had thought that the northern perimeter was the weak point in the encirclement. Instead, they had enthusiastically flung themselves into yet another Eastling trap. The nomads' reinforcements weren't there to stop them from escaping. No, they would form the anvil behind them while this massive hammer of ten thousand cavalry crashed down upon their front.
----- * * * -----
Clenching her right arm with an arrow shaft still in it, Lydia bit down on a gag as she sat against the side of the bouncing ammunition wagon. Her posture was both awkward and uncomfortable, yet she wasn't allowed to move. There was a second arrow lodged through her left thigh, while a third had just been extracted from her shoulder.
"GAAHHHHHH!" Her gag fell out when she screamed in excruciating pain. The healers had run out of both herbs and magic. They could only sever the arrowhead and pull the shaft out of her thigh, without anesthesia.
"I told you we shouldn't have waited this long," the white-haired healer reprimanded. "We Samarans heal too quickly. Your wound had already closed around the shaft. I had to tear it back open again."
"Y-yes... yes you did," Lydia's breath came ragged. "B-but we... Samarans... don' bleed out... They do."
With her gaze still blurred by tears, Lydia looked around at what remained of her makeshift assault force. Her 'battalion' had swelled to nearly two thousand by the time she destroyed the hilltop command post. But now, as they rode through the prairie painted orange by the dusk light, less than eleven hundred or so remained.
But the important part was that they were alive. Somehow, they had fought their way out when the main breakout failed.
Eleven hundred... out of an army of forty-five thousand.
Tears fell down her cheeks as Lydia thought of what she had just lost, for a second time.
The healer pulled the last arrow from Lydia's arm, and the bliss of unconsciousness claimed her at last.
Lydia would never have imagined that she would be called the White Lily of Desna by tomorrow, or that her achievement -- the killing of an Eastling general -- was the only 'success' in the field that the Polesians would attain during their first three years of total war.
...A war that virtually destroyed the Federated Principalities of Polesia and forever changed their way of life.