More than a Sword

I wrote my first fantasy short story for English class in 8th grade at Sumner Academy–hi, Mrs. Johnson! A little while later, I realized I liked girls, so I rewrote it! You can read more about that here. Because you all overwhelmingly voted for me to share the entire story that I excerpted in this reading for Ephemera Series, I decided to get real vulnerable and let you all read this first foray into what became the rest of my life. I’m doing this because it’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s important not to take yourself too seriously.

You’ll likely see the footprints of my early influences: The Wheel of Time, The Dragonlance Chronicles, the Forgotten Realms, and more. One thing that sticks out, and that I’m very proud of, is that I knew who I was from a very young age…the brand remains strong. 😉

More than a Sword

by C.L. Clark, age 15ish

“I don’t want to ride another bloody horse as long as I flaming live!” moaned a disgruntled Andhra as she clambered off of her horse.

“Nor me,” Mierin agreed. “I’m bloody saddle-sore.”

“That’s too bad,” Atarin said, laughing. “You’ll be back on them again tomorrow, just after dawn.” Andhra watched as the lean young man dismounted much more gracefully than she had.

“Why so early?” Andhra asked over Mierin’s groan.

“You know my da,” Atarin answered with a shrug. “He probably wouldn’t stop at all if the horses didn’t need the rest.”

“I think I’ll take my chances walking,” muttered Mierin. Andhra and Atarin laughed.

The three friends started unloading their horses. Andhra’s roan stallion kept pushing Atarin as Andhra removed its load. “Leave off!” Atarin yelled as the roan bit his collar. “I say, leave off!”

Andhra was laughing so hard that she could barely hold her saddlebags, and only the supporting arm of an equally amused Mierin kept Andhra on her feet. Even Mierin’s braid seemed to be laughing as it swung back and forth over her shoulders.

The scene was starting to draw a crowd when Andhra could finally spare enough breath to say, “He wants your apple!” Andhra pointed to the shiny red apple Atarin had been eating.

“My—?” Atarin broke off. There was no point in arguing. “Your horse is to smart for its horseshoes,” he said, exasperated, then he fed the roan the apple.

The crowd began to disperse, the soldiers chuckling as they went back to their individual duties. Andhra was disappointed as she felt Mierin’s arm slide off of her shoulders. Andhra knew it was necessary, though, lest it be seen as more than genial.

After the chaos had subsided, Andhra asked, “Where are we, exactly?” Andhra had never been very good with maps or directions.

“We have been traveling east since dawn, keeping the forest on our left,” Mierin said, making a sweeping gesture that included the expansive woods, “so we should be in the Black Hills.”

Andhra looked west, back the way they had come, her brown, almond-shaped orbs squinting in the sunset. The land seemed indeed to be nothing but crests and valleys; it only seemed to level out near the forest. Andhra realized that the forest would have to be the Black Forest. It was lost to her, however, why the hills were called the Black Hills. They were a lush green right now, in the peak of spring.

Mierin’s hand on Andhra’s shoulder roused her from her unspoken conundrum. One of the other soldiers stood there, waiting at ease. He was the captain’s messenger, Raisten. Noticing Andhra start, Raisten said, “The captain would like to see you, Andhra.” He nodded behind him, toward the captain’s tent.

A host of thoughts attacked Andhra’s mind. The first and foremost was, Has he found out about Mierin and me? That thought was almost immediately thrown out, though. Good sense chose to take up residence in Andhra’s head again, and she realized that both she and Mierin would have been summoned had the captain found out. But, if not that, what could he want?

“The captain?” Andhra asked. “Aye, aye.” Andhra strode off, leaving Mierin and Atarin looking as vexed as she felt.

When Andhra arrived at the tent, she glanced around nervously. The oranges and pinks of dusk enhanced the high ridges of Andhra’s cheeks and her deep-set eyes. To the soldiers working nearby, she seemed a specter in her dark leathers and black riding cloak. She glowed, yet was cloaked in shadow. Andhra took a deep breath, and then parted the canvas of the captain’s tent.

“Raythwen,” Captain Sareme addressed Andhra by her surname.

“Yes, sir. Reporting as requested, sir.” Andhra stood at attention, back straight and her eyes locked forward.

A small smile flitted across the captain’s leather face. “Sit,” Captain Sareme commanded.

Andhra sat on the warped three-legged stool in front of her. Surprisingly, it held her weight. Andhra swallowed down the lump in her throat. The flickering light of two lanterns played games with the shadows of Captain Sareme’s face. It gave him a sinister look. His snow-white hair, gray in the dim lantern light, hung over his shoulders as he leaned forward over his traveling desk. Here it comes—

The captain pulled out a map. After weighting it down, he beckoned Andhra closer, and said, “An army of Southerners has been spotted near here.” His finger jabbed a spot east of where the Westerner camp was marked. “The Southerners are traveling west at an alarming pace. A battle between us is inevitable.” The captain rolled up his map.

“The only question is, when? Will we ambush them or should we let them come to us, and break themselves on a fortified camp? For my lieutenants those questions are. A different task I have for you, Raythwen.”

Andhra sat, barely daring to breathe. Their battalion was only twenty strong. How would they stand against 100?

“Andhra, come over here to my side of the desk.” The sudden use of her first name served only to make her more nervous, but Andhra did as she was told. She released her death grip on the stool and walked around to stand next to Captain Sareme’s seat.

But the captain wasn’t sitting on anything. He seemed to be floating on the air!

“Y-you are a-a Mage!” Andhra whispered. She knew it without the captain’s answering nod and small smile. She could feel it now, a strange tingle over her skin like goose bumps.

“But why—?” Andhra started.

Captain Sareme must have known what Andhra was going to say, because he cut her off, saying, “I could sense your energies ever since you joined the Westerner army. I can tell you have great potential as a Mage.” His smile had become very knowing.

Andhra backed around the desk and to her rickety stool. Shockingly reliable, it caught Andhra when her knees failed. She paled further as the captain’s face became grim.

“I am an Air and Fire Mage. I can teach you how to control the fires of your soul. Another Fire Mage could be the difference between a victory and defeat,” he said intensely. “You are strong enough to turn the tides! I know it!”

Andhra was neither an idiot nor a fool. She was actually quite intelligent, despite what some of her acts said to the contrary. Andhra understood what the captain was saying. “You are going to teach me, so that I can fight for you against the Southerners with my powers.” It wasn’t a question, she knew it was so, but the captain answered her anyway.

“Yes.” The captain walked around the desk to stand in front of Andhra. “I shall teach you all that I can tonight. Due to the difficulty, I am afraid I can only teach you the fireball and flaming sword. They will be valuable assets for this battle and many more to come.”

The tall snow-haired man clasped his hands behind his back and began to pace, but his eyes never seemed to leave Andhra. The lanterns continued their shadow games, making the captain seem regal, despite his rather plain leathers. His voice took on a lecturing tone as he continued. “Now, you must use your magic wisely, because using it will drain your energy. However, magic has been known to feed off of very strong emotions, as well. All save fear.” Captain Sareme stopped pacing and locked his green eyes onto Andhra’s brown ones. Andhra fidgeted on her stool, but she dared not look away. The captain continued.

“The steps in making a fireball or a flaming sword are basically the same. First, you direct your energy into your hand, whichever you wish. For a fireball, you ball your energy up and hurl it at your opponent. For a fire sword, direct your energy along your blade, and it should grow a deadly wreath of flames.” The captain then picked up his sword and unsheathed it. The sword glowed red in the eerie glow of the lanterns. He held his empty left hand outstretched. “Watch,” he said.

Captain Sareme held up his sword and squinted slightly, concentrating. Almost instantly, flames surrounded the sword, dancing playfully along the shimmering steel. In the captain’s left hand, a ball of flames sat calmly. Then it began to grow. It started the size of a small river stone. Soon it was the size of an apple, and it continued growing until it was the size of Captain Sareme’s head.

Belatedly, Andhra realized that the lanterns had gone out. The flames on the captain’s sword and in his palm were the only lights in the tent. Their reflections jumped gleefully in Captain Sareme’s eyes. There was a strange prickle across Andhra’s skin. She knew, somehow, that she would feel that tingle even if she were in her own tent on the other side of the camp.

Abruptly the conjured flames went out. The light of the lanterns again lit the tent. The captain sheathed his sword as if nothing had happened. “Now you try.”

Andhra’s hands were sweaty and shaky as she grasped the hilt of the sword that rested at her right hip. She held her blade out, focusing as Captain Sareme had told her to. Fire erupted from the blade so suddenly that Andhra jumped back in surprise. She had gotten a face full of the flames but remained unharmed. Captain Sareme saw the shock on Andhra’s face and chuckled.

“The flames will not burn the user. They are…an extension of you. I would teach you more this night, but my lieutenants and I must plan our strategy.”

Andhra sheathed her sword and stood at attention once more. “Dismissed!” the captain said crisply.

Andhra wheeled about smartly and made to leave the tent. Before she could step out, however, Captain Sareme said to her, “Practice this well tonight, you should. I fear we may do battle on the morrow.” Andhra walked out, leaving the grim captain behind her.

It was a subdued air that Andhra stepped into. While Andhra had been in the captain’s tent, dusk had given over to night. She had spent more time in there than she had expected to. It was not terribly late, yet most of the soldiers were already tucked away in tents. The few that had remained around the fires stared at Andhra as she walked to the tent she and Mierin shared.

Mierin sat inside the tent, reading a book as she waited. She had already put out the bedrolls. Mierin started when Andhra walked in with a troubled look on her face.

“What is it?” Mierin whispered anxiously, placing her book to the side. Andhra could see the concern in Mierin’s beautiful bright blue eyes, eyes that always seemed to see right through Andhra.

Andhra let the tent flap fall, and then shook her head at Mierin. “Not here,” Andhra whispered back.

Mierin nodded in the dark and got up. Andhra grasped Mierin’s hand and led her away into the woods. They were lucky to find an empty clearing before walking too far.

In the clearing, Mierin stopped Andhra and grabbed her shoulders. “What is the matter?” Mierin asked Andhra again.

Mierin pushed Andra onto a log and sat down next to her. Andhra took a deep breath and told Mierin what had transpired in Captain Sareme’s tent. She ended by giving a demonstration of her newfound powers. Concentrating hard, Andhra managed to conjure up a small stone-sized ball of fire in her palm. Andhra watched with some amusement as Mierin’s eyes widened in shock.

Andhra tried to make her fireball bigger, just as Captain Sareme had done, while Mierin sat and watched. Andhra was glad Mierin was there with her; without Mierin’s, encouragement, Andhra doubted she could have done it. Despite that, Andhra failed the first several tries. No earlier than an hour later, Andhra finally grew a fireball the size of Captain Sareme’s head.

Triumphant, Andhra slumped to the ground and leaned against a tree trunk. Mierin came to sit next to her. Mierin’s warm body comforted Andhra. Andhra turned to look at Mierin. Her braid gleamed silver in the moonlight; stars made her eyes sparkle. One side of her mouth cricked up as she smiled. Andhra thought she was beautiful.

Andhra saw no more as she closed her eyes and felt Mierin’s soft lips on her own. Mierin’s mouth opened to let in Andhra’s seeking tongue, and Andhra pulled Mierin’s head closer. As they kissed, she unbraided Mierin’s hair—where Mierin came from, the unbraiding was the coveted privilege of a lover. This may be our last time together, Andhra realized, as Mierin’s silken waves cascaded over Andhra’s hands. The same thought seemed to have occurred to Mierin; tears wet Andhra’s hands as they fell from Mierin’s eyes.

Andhra pulled away and brushed the tears from Mierin’s face. Andhra wrapped her arms around Mierin, who was content to be held. As they held each other in the dappled clearing, Andhra thought about what Captain Sareme had said.

Me, she thought, turn the tides of this battle? Andhra knew that Fire Mages, along with Earth Mages, were the Elemental Mages known most for their fighting prowess. In fact, Fire Mages were more commonly called Battle Mages. To be one of them was something Andhra had always dreamt of as a child. While other girls had sat inside, knitting or playing with dolls, Andhra had played “war” with the boys. She had always been the Fire Mage, brandishing candles at “the enemies.” Those memories brought back other bitter and sweet moments in her life.

There was the time when Andhra’s mother had thrown her out in a fit of rage when she discovered Andhra kissing the village Wise Woman, a girl only a hand-span older than Andhra’s fourteen summers. It was widely acknowledged that such relations were tainted with evil, but Andhra couldn’t help herself. She had never been attracted to any of the village boys like the other girls. After she was thrown out, Andhra became the leader of the local street rats, most of them orphans. Very few were outcasts like her.

It was when she had been caught filching something for the third time that she had been taken into the Westerner army. She had been on her way to the gallows, the punishment for third-time offenders, when Captain Sareme vouched for her and said he would instill discipline in her. She had been sixteen. She endured training for a few years at the training barracks at the Westerners’ main hub, and it was there that she met Mierin. They had sparred with each other often, and one early morning when the training yard was empty, Mierin had locked their blades. A moment later, she had locked their lips. Andhra would never forget that kiss….

It was just this past month that Andhra had been chosen for Captain Sareme’s platoon. Until now, Andhra thought he had just pitied her. Now she knew better. She rubbed the branded Xs on her wrists; they told how many times she had been caught. She could feel the burn as if it were yesterday.

She thought of her fonder childhood memories, longing for the simplicity of life she had had some fifteen years ago. Now she held responsibility. You are strong enough to turn the tides! Captain Sareme’s voice echoed in Andhra’s mind. She would be the turning point of this battle. The lives of her fellow soldiers would depend on her. But to save their lives, I would have to take away many others, Andhra realized. The Southerners would never surrender; they always fought to the last man. Andhra assumed it was some sort of honor among their people.

Andhra was not sure she could do it. As she listened to the soft sleepy breathing of Mierin in her arms, though, Andhra knew she had to try.

As much as Andhra loved to feel Mierin’s touch, the weight was putting her arms to sleep. She gently woke the other woman from her doze, and the two walked back to the sleeping camp.

*** *** ***

The day dawned gray and cloudy, promising rain. Andhra stood on the crest of a hill overlooking the Southerners’ camp, with Atarin, Mierin and Captain Sareme standing next to her. The few mounted soldiers stood behind them. Those on foot had already surrounded the Southerners’ camp. There would be no escape route. In the quiet gloom of the dawn, all watched the sleeping men. Our camp would have looked just like this an hour ago, Andhra thought.Archers waited in the trees, bows drawn. The wind gusted through the trees so that Andhra was amazed at how the archers maintained their perches. That same mischievous wind brought smells of dying coals from the Southerners’ camp, and toyed with the thin braided tale that started at the bottom of Andhra’s close-cropped hair.

Andhra took out her sword and heard several other swords leave scabbards. She turned to Atarin and saw an odd sparkle in his green eyes. Captain Sareme’s sword was out. A moment later, it was burning. “Andhra, light!” he barked.

Andhra focused, straining, and her own finely wrought steel was soon ablaze. Atarin’s jaw dropped. “I hope we see each other again when this is over. Good luck,” Captain Sareme said.

All remained silent, the calm before a storm. Andhra’s heart beat furiously under her cuirass. She grasped Mierin’s hand tightly as Captain Sareme raised his hand. The tension in the air was palpable. Andhra held her breath. Captain Sareme dropped his hand.

Twangs of bowstrings flooded the campsite. A startled cry moved the sleeping camp into action, and then the battle began. Andhra moved forward on her roan, slashing at men in different states of undress. It might have been comical under different circumstances.

Andhra lopped off the head of one Southerner, the wound cauterized by the sword’s fire. After riding over several men, Andhra was confronted by a very large and well-prepared Southerner. Andhra’s horse reared, but Andhra held fast. The large Southerner slashed the horse’s neck. Andhra leapt off before she was crushed, but she didn’t escape the fountain of blood. As Andhra struggled to get her footing, the mammoth approached. He bore a wickedly curved battle-axe and grinned cruelly.

Andhra calmed herself, focused on her sword. She tried to make a fireball, but she was so tired….

The axe man swung. The flames on Andhra’s sword went out. Cold steel met cold steel as their weapons locked. The Southerner’s eyes gleamed in his bare and bald head. Fear ran through Andhra like blood as she backed away from another chop. She slipped on a bloody stone and found herself lying next to Raisten’s body. She cursed. The Southerner’s axe whistled down, determined to cleave Andhra’s skull.

“Andhra!” The voice cut through Andhra’s fear. Mierin’s voice sounded across the battlefield, full of desperation. Andhra had to get to her!

Andhra rolled over to her left, dodging the Southerner’s axe, and willing her sword to light. She managed a medium-sized fireball instead, and hurled it at the giant man. It caught him by surprise, hitting him in the face. Andhra watched in horror as the Southerner’s eyes melted in their sockets and his skin shriveled and blackened until the fire fizzled out. Andhra’s fireballs were not yet strong enough to burn on their own fuel. The man’s dying shriek cut through Andhra’s head, making her reel. It sounded so…inhuman.

“Andhra!” The call again reached Andhra’s consciousness. She searched frantically for any glimpse of blond hair. Andhra stood still too long, though. Pain shot through her body as an arrow blossomed in her left thigh. A grunt of pain escaped her and her eyes began to water as she broke the arrow shaft just above her flesh.

Andhra was angry now. She needed to get to Mierin, and all these Southerners kept getting in her way! The fire on her sword burned brighter. Another Southerner stepped in her path. Their blades clashed one, two, three times, until Andhra’s wounded leg gave out. Without even catching her balance, she stabbed. Sheer luck led Andhra’s sword to the soldier’s chest. His dying scream echoed through Andhra’s head, but it couldn’t drown out Mierin’s desperate cries. Andhra whirled around frantically. And then she saw her.

There was Mierin, too far away for Andhra’s injured leg to run, fighting several Southerners at once. Mierin kicked one away and slashed with her sword. She turned to face another.

Andhra’s arms wobbled. She could hardly lift her blade, but she hacked her way forward as fast as she could. It was not fast enough.

After dispatching another Southerner, Mierin whirled around to stab the last one. Andhra stood transfixed as the Southerner’s sword went through Mierin’s stomach and out her back. Mierin cried out as the blade left her. His work done, the Southerner ran off.

Like a dam bursting, white-hot anger surged through Andhra; her sword burned more fiercely than ever. The first foolish Southerner to cross Andhra had her head lopped off at eye-level, her brains sizzling in the flames. Andhra loosed fireballs as she cut, becoming a whirlwind of fire and steel.

The Southerners’ numbers were dwindling. Andhra heard the sounds of death, people on both sides screaming in agony. Andhra could no longer feel her left leg. With a feral roar, she charged, adding to the din of battle. With a yell, she caught a man on fire and watched him burn. With a growl, she split a man from shoulder to groin. On she went through the Southerners’ camp, her fury at them fueling her rampage. How dare they touch Mierin? Andhra thought fiercely.

Suddenly, there was no one left to kill. All of the Southerners were now dead or dying. But so were many of the Westerners.

Andhra rushed to Mierin, sadness quenching the fire of her rage, leaving a strange emptiness behind. Atarin was already at Mierin’s side, his red hair matted with sweat and blood, the sparkle gone from his eyes.

“She is still alive,” he said to Andhra, “but only just. She has lost too much blood.” He turned to Mierin and said, “Andhra is here, Mierin, she is here. Hold on.”

Andhra rushed over and gently cradled Mierin in her arms. She didn’t care if anyone found out, not anymore. Atarin knelt beside her.

“You fought well, Andhra. I watched from my cozy little patch of ground, here,” Mierin said hoarsely, managing a weak smile. The rest of Mierin’s face was pallid, and her once bright eyes were fading. Blood covered her cuirass, but the flow seemed to be slowing. Mierin coughed feebly, spraying blood on Andhra and Atarin’s faces, then said, “Honor to you both.” The life winked out of Mierin’s sky blue eyes, never to laugh again. Andhra closed them to keep out the now heavily falling rain.

Andhra longed to kneel there, weeping and holding Mierin forever, but now was not the time for grieving. Atarin stood and Andhra took his proffered hand. After helping her up, Atarin embraced Andhra in a tight hug. The rain and Andhra’s tears soaked his bloodstained overcoat. His own tears fell into Andhra’s short hair.

Andhra pushed herself away to survey the scene of carnage before her. The promised downpour quenched the small remaining fires. It pattered over charred Southerner remains. It pounded blood and dirt into a muddy mixture. Andhra walked over to the body of the giant Southerner who had frightened her so at the beginning of the battle.

She stared at his corpse. She noticed several rings on his hands. Andhra was familiar with this Southerner custom: A man wore one ring for each of his children. He had been a man just like many of Andhra’s friends, had had a family. He had probably only fought because he believed he was protecting that family, like many in the Westerner army. Now, though, his head was hardly distinguishable as human, shrunken and charred as it was.

Because of Andhra, this man’s children would never see their father again. The thought made her queasy. So did the stench of burnt human flesh and excrement, and the sight of charred bodies scattered across the battlefield. Andhra bent over double and retched, emptying her stomach of the little she had eaten that morning. She retched until she had nothing left, and then just heaved dryly.

A hand touched her shoulder and Andhra looked up. It was Atarin. Andhra looked Atarin in the eyes and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. Andhra could tell Atarin had seen her and Mierin. He knew. Andhra waited for the accusation.

None came. Atarin grabbed Andhra again in a tight embrace. “There will be more battles, Andhra, and many more people will die. But you must remember, it takes more than a sword to be a soldier,” Atarin whispered.

They held each other tightly, as if the other was the only thing keeping him or her from being swept away. When they finally let each other go, they went to help the five standing Westerners look for survivors.

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