From the sequel to The Hordes of Chanakra, which is proceeding apace:
“You have all heard the tale,” Mahed said at the council. “War Woman would come. We would follow her into battle, and that battle would be our end. Since our fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ time the smoke has told us of our fate. We faced it, unflinching.”
Kaila shifted uncomfortably where she sat in the circle with chiefs and shamans. In time past she would have welcomed an end of the nomads of Briganzo’s Desert, when she knew them only as those who raided farmsteads flanking the city of Elam.
A year past, Kreg had begun to open her eyes to a different tale. And now, having lived among them since her escape from Trevanta, accompanied by two nomad children, she found that the thought of their ending pained her. That she was fated to bring about that end twisted the knife in her heart.
“But then,” Mahed continued, “the smoke told a new tale. No longer did it say that we would end if we followed War Woman, but that we would end if we did not.”
Mahed stamped twice then raised his hands to the sky. “And now the time is come. The smoke sends War Woman to us, the smoke of a burning city of stone.” He turned and held out a hand to Kaila. “War Woman is come.”
Kaila met Mahed’s gaze. She thought she was the only one to see his wink.
One of the chiefs, Kaila thought she remembered that he had been introduced as being Five Stars Clan, stood.
“You say War Woman is come. Who is this woman? Who names her War Woman?”
Mahed withdrew the hand he pointed in Kaila’s direction and pointed it another way.
Isemet, seated back from the circle of chiefs and shamans stood. “I name her War Woman. I, Isemet, of Three Mountains Clan. I named her when she showed me my death, and then withheld it.”
“A sorceress then?” Five Star Clan said. “Being a sorceress does not make one War Woman.”
“A warrior,” Isemet said. “The equal to any who ride the desert.”
Mahed beckoned Isemet forward. Isemet stepped past the circle of sitting leaders to stand by Mahed.
“I saw her practicing with her long knife, her sword, and I mocked her. She offered to test herself against me and I, in my pride, agreed, thinking to teach this woman a lesson. At first, I offered her the butt of my spear, thinking her unworthy of its point, but she danced aside and struck with her sword, striking with the flat like an elder might use to teach a youngling.” He tapped his forehead to indicate the spot Kaila had hit.
“Again and again, I struck, but she was the wind, never where I struck, yet always ready to sting me, like wind-driven sand, to show me my foolishness. My anger rose. I reversed my spear, now facing her with the point. We fought. Never had I felt such strength, such speed, not from any warrior of Three Mountains Clan. And then, when she saw the time was right, she struck the spear from my hands.” He held up his hands, showing them empty. “She placed her sword above my heart, showing me the death I had earned. She then withdrew it and offered the hand of friendship instead, giving me back my life.” Isemet turned to face Kaila and bowed his head.
“My heart smoke rose up within me then and spoke to me. And I knew I stood before War Woman, and the time the smoke had foretold had come. I named her. And the clan proclaimed it true.”
“You were deluded,” Five Stars Clan said. “Pride spoke to your heart, not heart smoke. You could not bear to be beaten by a woman so your pride named her War Woman.”
Isemet started to speak, but Mahed held up a hand. “You challenge the claim?”
“Then let War Woman stand forward to defend the claim.”
Kaila stared up at Mahed.
His eyes met hers firmly. Slowly, he held out a hand, palm up.
Kaila rose to her feet.
“I do not claim the title, War Woman,” Kaila said. “Others say it of me. But I will not have the courage and honor of young Isemet denied. If you would name him fool, then stand before me.”
“I do not fight women,” Five Stars Clan said.
“If you would challenge the claim of War Woman,” Mahed said. “You must prove the challenge in combat.”
Slowly, Five Stars Clan rose. He was shorter than Kaila, but with a body that brought to mind the bole of an old oak, breadth and strength. His hair hung in three long braids, one on each side and one down his back.
He held out a hand. “Wasam, my spear.”
A younger warrior trotted forward carrying a heavy spear which he placed in Five Star Clan’s hand.
Mahed clapped a hand on Kaila’s shoulder as she drew her sword. “Unless you must, do not kill him.”
Kaila nodded. Her eyes narrowed as she studied Five Star Clan. He was no Isemet. There would be no false bravado, no carelessness caused by overconfidence. He would simply come in to end the fight as quickly, and as decisively as possible.
Five Stars Clan stabbed with his spear. Kaila spun hers down with a drawstroke that neatly severed the shaft. In a blur, she stepped forward, with a stab just to the side of Five Star Clan’s head, barely missing his cheek. She lifted the sword and drew back before skipping back a step.
Silence fell over the watching nomads. Five Star Clan’s left braid lay on the ground before him.
Five Star Clan looked down at his cloven spear, to the severed braid, then up at Kaila.
“War Woman indeed,” he said then returned to his place in the circle.
Kaila, likewise, returned to her own place, a smile playing at her lips.
For the first time in weeks, she felt fully herself.