WriteWorld Prompt: It did make one wonder what they looked like under their masks.
I’m trying focus on one different skill with each of these writing prompts. This time it was worldbuilding.
One. Two. Three. Turn.
One. Two. Three. Parry. Slice.
It was like dancing without music.
One. Two. Three. Turn.
One. Two. Three. Dodge. Stab.
And she was good at it. The seers always told her she would be the best, once she had the proper training. She hadn’t believed them until Hunter put a sword in her hand. It was like dancing, but better. It ended when the other person surrendered or died, a finite point, nothing so arbitrary as when the music happened to finish.
One. Two. Three. Spin.
One. Two. Three. Silence.
In the quiet she could hear her own harsh breaths, her pulse pounding in her ears. She could feel the ground, dirt turned to blood-soaked mud, rising over her toes and sticking her feet to the ground. As the silence faded to a more normal level she began to hear again. Screams and sobs and dying gasps, whinnies from injured and dying horses, warhounds baying to give chase.
Gods hands, but she was exhausted. How long had they been fighting anyway? It had to have been hours since the banners had been taken down. Her knees wanted to bend. She was covered head to toe in mud and blood anyway, it wasn’t like she could get much dirtier. She locked her knees, willing her body to not sway. She was tired, but she did not get to collapse like any other soldier.
Her foot slipped as she turned toward the sound of her name, but she managed to recover gracelessly. Hunter gave her a brief bow, his right hand — his stronghand — fisted against his chest. His hair had slipped out of the binding and left bloody streaks on his forehead. He brushed the wisps away as he straightened, waiting for her acknowledgment. She was tired. She wanted to make him wait, but he was her designated heir and one of the highest ranked soldiers in her army. She lifted her weakhand and signaled him to approach.
“Are you injured?” Hunter asked. He sounded just as exhausted as she did
Her knuckles stung in places uncovered by her gauntlets, one of her ankles had been hurt when she had been forced to roll from her horse’s back near the beginning of the battle. Neri reached for a dull ache in her upper arm, left bare by her leather armor. Her hand came back clean, or at least no dirtier than it already was. “No. Nothing more than scratches and bruises. How are our people?”
“I’ve had no reports yet.”
Hunter, the only non-healer allowed to touch her, lifted her arm and visually checked for any tears in her sleeve. She knew there were no injuries there, but he raised his voice and called for a healer to come to them. Merrick was there before he could finish the request. Merrick unlaced her sleeve, pulling the padded fabric free from the rest of the armor. The sleeve fell to the ground and stuck fast in the mud.
“And the enemy?” Neri asked, looking back at Hunter.
She knew the answer just from the look on his face: the slightest crinkling of his eyebrows, smoothed out as quickly as it happened, a flare of his nostrils, a tightening of his lips, one sharp exhale. “Gone. Even the dead.”
Not that she had expected anything different. “Did they leave anything behind?”
“Several weapons. A mask or two.”
Neri took a deep breath, deeper than she would have allowed if it had been anyone but Hunter and her mute healer beside her. The enemy they faced had no name, as far as anyone knew. They called them the Masked Ones and nobody had ever seen their faces. They were taller, broader, and stronger than Neri’s people, but slower. It did make one wonder what they looked like under their masks.
The masks looked different on every one of them. Some were strips of black or red fabric, covering them from forehead to mouth. Most were made of some type of glass. Her archivists and scientists were yet unable to discover how they were made, heavier than the glass her people used for dining or mirrors, it resisted breaking even under the full stroke of a sword or an arrow’s direct hit. All were sculpted in different shapes, some animals she knew and some that could only be from nightmares or something worse.
“Get report from our bannerleaders. Merrick, go to those who need it more than I.”
The healer lifted his stronghand to his ear and then his lips. I hear and obey. Another quick flick of his fingertips. Your arm appears uninjured, but I would like to see it back at camp.
“I will find you when I am done here.”
Merrick blinked at her, one slow movement to show her exactly what he thought of her promise. She smiled at him and pressed her weakhand to his shoulder. It was a gesture of fondness, one she would have bestowed upon a younger sibling or cousin if she had used her stronghand.
He bowed, weakhand over stronghand — the bow of a lesser to someone far their superior, and turned back toward where a large black tent was rising on the outskirts of the torn battlefield. Hunter had gone while Merrick was looking her over; she could see him with a number of her bannerleaders. She was turning to go to him and receive report herself when she heard a woman clear her throat behind her. Neri looked back to see who it was and raised her left hand to allow the approach.
“Mistress,” Raki said, bowing with her stronghand to her heart. “It is good to see you uninjured. I was concerned when I saw Merrick attending you.”
Of course you were, Neri thought. Only chance you have of succeeding me is if Hunter dies first, otherwise he’ll pick his own heir. Most days she liked her second heir, but she had chosen her largely because it was far safer to have someone with her ambition and ruthlessness as second in line. Raki’s claim for the throne ended if she was any way implicated in Neri’s death. Second heirs usually made the best bodyguards, in fact, and Neri often considered placing her as head of her guards, but her absence on the battlefield wasn’t worth the additional peace of mind.
“I am well,” Neri said, turning her back on Raki to start walking toward the staging grounds. She would hear report herself, and address her soldiers. “How goes the retreat?”
“They’ve disappeared, Mistress. Melted into the hills like the animals they are. They’re probably halfway over the mountains by now.”
Neri made a noncommittal sound as she walked, stepping around a particularly torn up section of the ground. It was been the one she fought in at the end, she realized seeing her sleeve still lying in the muck.
“High Command wishes to see you, Mistress.”
“High Command can wait,” Neri said. “I will see to my soldiers first. Have they formed banners?”
Banners were the largest divisions within her army, named for the device they carried on their flags and emblazoned across the back of their armor. Each banner had four corps, highly specialized for whatever she could possibly need on the battlefield and off. She had been the Towerbanner Swordmaster before the previous King’s death several years earlier. Hunter was the Thronebanner Horsemaster and Raki a Mountainbanner Scout, a high ranking one, but not yet Scoutsmaster.
“Yes, Mistress. Shadowbanner lost a number of their third corps.”
Neri thought a moment. “Shadowbanner Archers?”
Raki nodded and lifted her weakhand to allow a scribe with a raised stronghand to approach. Her gesture was more casual than Neri would have given; her fingers were not tight together and her thumb was too close to her palm. Sloppy. Neri purposefully arranged her weakhand in a formal summons, drawing one of her attendants forward.
“Yes, Mistress?” Sophia asked, her right hand on top of her left over her heart. Sophia was left-handed, unusual, but generally considered good luck in a scribe.
“Hunter should be nearly done getting report. See he is brought to me on the staging grounds.”
“I hear and obey, Mistress.”
Sophia melted into the background, weakhand raised to summon one of her own attendants. Her hand was perfectly arranged, first three fingers pressed tightly together, smallest finger bent at the middle knuckle, thumb fully extended to the side.
“Raki,” Neri said, stopping and turning to face the other woman.
Her second heir stopped as soon as she heard her name, taking care to stay more than an arms length from Neri now that they were facing one another, so she could not accidentally touch her while gesturing. “Yes, Mistress?”
“See to the High Command. I will be with them once I meet with Hunter and my soldiers.”
Raki bowed, stronghand pressed to her heart. “I hear and obey, Mistress.”
Neri raised her weakhand in a gesture of dismissal, thumb tight to the side of her palm, four fingers spread. Raki bowed again and headed back toward the dirty white tent in the center of the camp.
Sophia had done her work well. Hunter was waiting for her at the stanging ground. Her soldiers were clumped loosely in their banners, chatting and lounging on the ground. A horn sounded at Neri’s arrival and the men and women surged to their feet, falling automatically into position. It was gratifying to watch. There was no jostling for position, no hesitation, no confusion. They all landed in perfect ranks within several seconds, weapons at attention. The Shadowbanner Spears looked especially imposing with the silver of their spearheads the only color she could see.
“You have done well today,” Neri said. She waited as the corpsleaders passed her words further back in the ranks. “The gods are pleased and, more importantly, I am pleased.”
Her pronouncement was met with a single, sharp shout from her army.
“The Masked Ones have been defeated here, but they will be back.” Again she waited for her words to be echoed by the corpsleaders. “For now, we will have several days of relaxation. Heal, rest.” Another pause. “Your bannerleaders will arrange guard duties.”
Neri bowed deeply to them, weakhand over her stronghand. That broke the silence among the ranks; whispers and gasps ran up and down the lines in waves. That bow was a sign of deep respect, the way a servant bowed to their master.
Her soldiers returned the bow as one, even those of high enough rank that tradition required only their stronghand. Hunter approached as the bannerleaders shouted dismissal orders.
“You wanted me?”
“Shadowbanner took heavy casualties, nearly a third of some of their corps. They were in the thick of things, as they usually are. Crazy, every one of them.”
“Raki told me.”
Hunter looked at her sideways. “Then what do you need me for?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Towerbanner and Calicebanner also took a significant number of casualties, but their injuries were relatively minor. Overall, we fared better than I thought we would have. Fighting on a terrain as hilly and rocky as this isn’t our strength. I’d rather have to cross a river.”
“That’s why they dug in here, I’d imagine,” Neri said. She gestured for him to follow her, turning toward the High Command’s tent. Her attendants fell in behind them, Hunter’s attendants a few paces behind. “High Command has summoned us.”
“Summoned you, you mean?” Hunter asked. “They’re likely not too pleased with your last-minute change to their plans.”
Neri made a rude gesture, thumbs pressed together, hands turned slightly away from one another. “They were bad plans. Shadowbanner would have been decimated if we’d done what they wanted us to. They’re idiots, all of them.”
“Don’t say that too loudly,” Hunter advised, although he didn’t look around to see if anyone was listening. “There are ways to ensure you lose the throne.”
They were nearly at the High Command’s tent, even dirtier than it looked from a distance. A number of guards milled around, nearly all wearing the brown that exempted them from being pulled into the army, even during the worst of battles. Some few were wearing the black of her military. Those stopped what they were doing and gave her a full bow, although those in brown generally only pressed their stronghand to their hearts in passing.
“They have controlled others before me. They may control others after me,” Neri said, lowering her voice, “but they will not control me. I will end them first.”
“Neri,” Hunter said between gritted teeth. This time he did look around to see if anyone was listening. Most of the guards were too far away, and those that may have been close enough to overhear all wore Neri’s black. “That is a good way to guarantee you lose your throne, and probably your life.”
“They’re worried they’ll find you more difficult to control than I am, which is part of the reason I chose you as heir. Raki is too erratic for them to predict. Half the time I don’t know what she’ll do and even the seers were worried when I named her.”
“You dance the dance well,” Hunter said as they arrived at the entrance to the grand tent. She stepped through first, with Hunter right behind her. Their attendants waited outside, serving both to announce her presence to any who wished to speak to the High Command and to keep anyone from getting close enough to eavesdrop.
The members of the High Command rose when she entered, seven men and women more than twice her age, looking down at her from a dais.
One. Two. Three. Step.
“You may bow,” Neri said, chin raised, arms folded behind her back. The stance appeared casual, but it had echos of her army about it.
One. Two. Three. Feint.
The seven looked at one another and then bowed, weakhands over their stronghands, just as they were meant to. As they straightened, Neri positioned herself to bow in return.
One. Two. Three. Riposte.
She placed her stronghand over her weakhand, the way she would bow to a bannerleader who had done a particuarly good job following her orders, and inclined her head to them. They may have crowned her, but the throne was her own.