The confusion in her warrior's faces alerted Hevne, and she spun around, sword held at the ready. Prepared for the attack, she was wholly unprepared for the nature of her enemy, and her bewilderment left her exposed. When the blow smashed into the side of her head her legs weakened, dizziness confounded her and she crumpled to her knees.
These were no Fire Warriors attacking them. This foe were women and girls of all ages, naked and filth-grimed with dirt and excrement, their faces twisted into perverse grimaces of hatred, mirroring the crazed and relentless fury of their attack.
And first one, then fifty, then hundreds of creatures surfaced, spewed out by the earth, attacking without pause or breath. With raucous screams and yells the creatures swarmed at them with such speed hardly had Hevne's warriors time to free their swords. And still they came, the ground in the distance undulating then exploding as more emerged and swiftly attacked.
The shock of the sudden onslaught was quickly overcome for the warriors of the Fists, for their foe was upon them. But with the battle came the realisation of their enemy: these were not the warriors of the Fire Isles.
All eyes, narrowed and intense with concentration, were upon Hevne. But before she could speak, every eye opened wide and every mouth gasped. There was incomprehension; there was disbelief; and finally, there was horror.
Behind Hevne the long grasses waved and weaved in the gentlest of breezes., but then, as if at some hidden command, the ground beneath them rose, rearing upwards in many small, slow eruptions of the earth. First one, then fifty, then hundreds of explosions as the sod and the grasses flew upwards, thrown violently into the air by whatever it was that emerged from beneath them.
She would have reassured her warriors, told them what she had been told, that battles were rarely planned and seldom would one side have control of the outcome, except right at the end of it all. She would have told her warriors that the silence they all knew did not mean there was no threat. If the island was deserted, she would have told them, the island would not be silent - the cry of morning hunger would fill the air with the wings of many gulls.
All this she would have told them if she had been given the chance.
Every face, every pair of eyes, were searching: every ear sought the sound of attack, simultaneously willing it and fearing the warriors of the Fire Isles. Every sense was stretched, almost to breaking, every muscle tensed with anticipation of attack, every fear held down so that swords could be wielded without inhibition. But no one alive had seen the warriors of the Fire Isles, for to battle them was to die in battle, so not one warrior with Hevne knew what they searched for.
Surrounded now only by the long grasses of the island, Hevne signalled the Fists to halt.
The beach was flat and wide and all twelve Fists gathered in formation before moving inland. Past the sand, ahead of them low shallow dunes soon gave way to grassland which rose steadily. The sand extended for a horses gallop on both sides until it gave way to cliffs, sheer and tall, in the far distance.
As the Fists moved forward up the sand and over the dunes an eerie silence accompanied them. The soft incline of grass welcomed them with easier walking, the long grasses ignoring the silence, humming quietly as they swished with the passing of many legs.
To the accompaniment of the sea the sky shaded lighter at the horizon. Thus did the eye of the Gods watch over its vanishing disciples and the Bronze Isles rise large and black from below the far horizon.
Hevne signalled. Not a word was spoken, but the warriors of her Fist arose as one and gathered behind her.
In silence they watched the first island approach.
As dawn broke, the horizon reddened the path of the sun, so that when the time came for the ships to unload their cargo of warriors, the sky looked much like a gaping throat.
The brightest, yes, thought Hevne, but the one that stands alone, the shining light, the star that leads millions across the sky. One. Alone.
They passed the few rocks that marked the now drowned island of Silkarra; the Bronze Isles were but an hour away.
Sea water sprayed her face again. Again, she did not wipe it. At least it hides the tears, she thought.
Stars at the horizon faded, presaging dawn. The eye of the Gods glared brightly down as she stared into the darkness seeking a vision of her father. None was gifted her.
She received no answer, lest it was the sound of the chiding of an irate sea or the spitting of petulant waves as the prows ploughed through. Wet with the wish of an ever moving sea for peace and tranquillity, Hevne had long since stopped wiping her face dry. Her hair hung wet and limp over her face, her sword lay in a pool of water at her side.
She looked intently at the star. Legend had it that it was a reflection in the eye of the Gods as they beheld our work. One star, amongst millions: the brightest.
The eye of the Gods stared blinking down on the flotilla of twelve ships pushing its way through the seas. Aboard those vessels, few slept, despite it being the very dead of night. In the hulls and upon decks, most lay silent, unmoving; unwilling to risk a noise lest they wake those who had been granted the gift of rest before battle.
On the lead vessel, Hevne sat in the prow, her knees drawn up supporting her chin, her arms hugging them. She gazed at the eye of the Gods, that one, lone, brightest star and asked for a sign.
In the closed room, Triu's words fell hard against white stone walls. Urqin wiped his mouth with his hand and said quietly: "You will not refuse our advice."
Triu smashed his fist into his open palm. His words were loud and sharp edged.
"My sister could even now be in battle! And you expect me to sit down and talk with the Fire Lords?"
Rallumi began: "Lord Triu, it is of Kamkarra and the people we - "
Urqin interrupted her "Now is not the time to think of Hevne, Interim Lord. Now is the time to think of your people."
In silence Jibrith watched the faces in the room. Young Triu, lips taut, jaw clenched: containing impatience, anger and, judging by the darting eyes, fear. Rallumi, sad-eyed, aware the unknown was but a blade away, aware of her feebleness if war came to Kamkarra. And Urqin. Knowledgeable, yet self-seeking. Saving himself, undoubtedly, but saving Kamkarra too.
Jibrith fought his own battle: the armies of his head sided with Urqin. A pragmatic approach, in which he and Urqin would also benefit. The armies of his heart sided with Triu. Jibrith awaited resolution - fearfully, for he already knew the outcome.
"And if I refuse?"
"Do not put us in that position, Interim Lord Triu."
The boy looked from one to the other of his three Advisors. Jibrith, his friend: stalwart, true. Urqin, knowledgeable, clever. Practical. It was he who had surprised everyone by referring to Triu by his formal name. This was formal counsel, but even so, it was rare that an Advisor would use a Ruler's formal title.
The third Advisor was Rallumi, she was old, wise, a giver of unexpected advice. But a woman to be trusted implicitly.
"And if I refuse?" Triu repeated, anger infecting his words.
"Urqin, you speak... wisely."
Jibrith turned to walk away, stopped, then turned back to the Advisor.
"We have not always seen eye to eye, Advisor Urqin. But in this, you are correct. You know the Fire Lords. You know their strength and our weakness. Triu must be advised accordingly. Be with him at dawn: I will come. We will speak with him then."
Urqin sniffed loudly, wiping his nose along his sleeve. He smiled, turned and walked away.
In silence ,Jibrith stood, unmoving. Two thoughts lurked in the shadows of his heart.
Am I too old? Am I too frightened?
"Our duty is to do our best for Kamkarra, what say you, Jibrith?"
Jibrith said nothing. The night was slowly fading at the horizon. The day would come, come what may.
Urqin had spoken truthfully. Of Duty. Of Death.
"Jibrith, we are the guardians of Kamkarra, you and I." Urqin's voice took on a more emphatic tone. "We cannot waste time staring at the night and wishing water was fire. We must act, before the invasion comes."
Jibrith shook his head, not because he disagreed but because there was no other choice.
And perhaps, after all, lives could be saved.
It's true, Jibrith thought, I'm frightened.
Urqin's voice continued into the night. The armies of the Fire Isles will despatch Hevne on landing. Then they will regroup and come for Kamkarra. Their invasion would be swift and brutal. Kamkarra was weak, defended only by women, children and old men. It was inevitable; as day follows night, inevitable.
"Do you want to die, friend Jibrith?"
"You know the answer to that, friend Urqin," Jibrith said and his body sagged. Those last two words cost Jibrith dear.
Urqin sniggered. It was a liquid laugh of triumph, a laugh that hid his gloating.
"Hevne faces slaughter when she reaches the Fire Isles. Oh Jibrith, how I cautioned against her folly in going there! And following her slaughter will come ours. We face death, my friend, and there is nothing we can do."
Jibrith had paled, his mind numb.
He watched as Urqin spoke, the gist of his words seemed to hang in the air between them, where Urqin's bony hands fluttered and jigged as he spoke like injured moths desperately seeking light.
"But, friend Jibrith, so silent, so frightened, there is a way out. For us, at least, we have a way out."
"Yes, I have been to the Fire Isles, I have - no, no, do not question, me Jibrith, in my role of Advisor I received invite to the Fire Isles. I have seen their machines of slaughter. Their warriors: I have seen them. From a distance, but I have seen them. Their ships. Twice the size of ours, they carry three times the number of warriors. And Jibrith - I have spoken with the Fire Lords."
Jibrith pushed Urqin from him, but did not move away.
"We are as children, Jibrith. Their plan for Kamkarra is already well advanced; we have... nothing!"
"I have been to the Fire Isles, Jibrith," Urqin whispered. Behind them the tide, stirred by gusting winds, pleaded hush, be hushed against the harbour wall, spraying its motion wet and salty on the cold stone.
"I have seen their warriors, Jibrith."
Somewhere in the town a baby cried, then was hushed.
Urqin pushed his mouth against Jibrith's ear, his breath hot and moist. In reflex, Jibrith pulled his head away but Urqin pulled him close again. This time, when his lips moved they were so close to Jibrith's own he could almost taste the words that dripped from them.
Jibrith felt the touch of cold fingers on his arm as Urqin's face suddenly appeared too close to his own. Then the clamp of bony fingers tightening, cold and unyielding like steel, and somehow, like steel, just as strong. Jibrith felt a strange sensation of having just heard a prison cell door clanging shut, being left with its echo ringing in his ears as he stood manacled to a wet prison wall forever.
Warm spit on his cheek pulled Jibrith back to the now, to his current distasteful situation. Urqin's cheek almost rubbed his own as the Advisor