For a hundred generations, our kin of the north lived and reigned virtuously, yet they are only remembered for their fall, their name now a curse we use to frighten willful children. See, you must recount there was an age when all our kind looked to them as a beacon of what the species was meant to be, the embodiment of the creator’s will and champions of justice. Thousands of souls lived and died with this notion in their hearts; do not dismiss their worldview so simply. I do not intend to venerate the deranged or the cursed. No, I hope you take their demise to heart, seeing how glorious they were in their centuries of power, only to become nothing more than a blasphemy. How quickly those ages of nobility were forgotten by the world. If it can happen to the most righteous of our kind, then surely it can happen to us.
~ Feng Tsaltz – Priestess – Beta Clan
It was situated between tranquility and perfection. A narrow crescent of land sheltered and sequestered by rocky crags that rose arrogantly towards heaven. For centuries warriors have bled themselves upon the soil, all hoping to be the ones to claim it as their own. The grass and crops had grown rich from the bones of the slain and to this day, no one was quite certain how many had died in their mortal pursuit of supremacy.
Khulan knew her forebears lay somewhere beneath that dirt, clashing generations ago when they had seized the land from whoever had been foolish enough to believe it belonged to them. Since that time, it has rested in the hands of their Clan, a prize believed worth the ages of violence and bloodshed. Khulan couldn’t quite disagree, though she had never seen a battle in the fourteen years she’d been alive. The wars she was privy to now were the stories her nainai told when she’d had too much to drink.
When she’d grow tired of the stories, Khulan would sneak around the back of their cottage, climbing up into the small window where her parents’ study lay. Years ago, her nainai had boarded up the door to keep her out, but somewhere in this initiative, the old woman had failed to secure the exterior opening. Scaling up to the window had been harder when she was younger, but now the feat was simple enough. However, wriggling her way inside had become increasing difficult now that she was no longer a child.
Close to a decade had passed since the Chieftain had rallied the tribes for war, her parents among those warriors who’d answered the call. Together they’d marched off to glory and together they had perished somewhere during the campaign. Her nainai never told Khulan where or how they died, though she was certain it was in pursuit of some noble endeavor that glorified both the Clan and the creator. Each time she snuck into their study, it was a moment to feel close to her parents and to absorb an iota of their martial greatness. And now, Khulan would honor their memories by proving her own worth as a warrior.
At least that’s what she kept telling herself to prevent her hands from shaking.
The stone cliffs surrounding the village served as a natural defense but also the hunting ground for many a wild beast, none more capable of making off with an unwary resident than a saber cat. The powerful felines would pounce down from high upon the rocks and shatter the bones of their prey as they struck. While typically their quarry was wayward sheep that’d wandered too far from the flock, Khulan was determined to ensure they thought twice about ever making an attempt on a more bipedal target.
The spear she carried was far from the blades forged by the Goibniu Tribe, but she had constructed it, a deed she took much pride in. Clutching it tightly, Khulan stalked over the rocks, eyes hunting for any sign of her target. Saber cats were stealthy and agile creatures, and she was determined not to be taken surprised by one.
After all, she was a Dragoon, a child of the Kappa Clan, the greatest soldiers ever to draw breath in all of history. It didn’t matter that her nainai refused to send her off to be trained in the academies or that there’d not been a war in what seemed like an eon, Khulan would prove her blood amongst the most worthy.
A soft growl prompted her to freeze and, cursing her lack of skill, Khulan peered up over her shoulder to where the familiar shape of a saber cat lay. The beast was nestled amongst the stones and stared down at her in an unspoken threat that warned her to stay away.
Sucking in a calming breath, Khulan slowly pivoted her body, so she was better facing the burly feline. At this distance, she’d only get one good throw with the spear, so she had to make it perfect. She’d been practicing for days in the fields below and, even with the difficult angle, was certain she could strike true.
It was just a matter of not letting her nerves get the better of her. Khulan met the saber cat’s steely gaze with her own. She would show this creature who was the dominant life form.
If her attempt at intimidation had any effect on the beast, it made no sign and its ears delicately twitched as though it were receiving a signal beyond her own hearing. Perhaps it was hearing the braying of lambs on the wind or the laughter of children playing outside the village. Khulan would make certain that it could never feast on either.
Spear drawing back, time slowed as she spaced her feet into a better throwing position, ready to channel all her strength into the weapon. If her aim was exact, she could hit the animal in the head, having enough power to penetrate the skull and kill it instantly. Barring that, Khulan hoped to catch the beast in the throat, not a clean or quick kill but likely to still cut off the creature’s air supply or bleed it to death. All she had to do was keep her hands steady and at the moment, that seemed easier said than done.
There wasn’t a simple way to determine how long she stood there staring down the cat. Had it been minutes, an hour? Or was it only a few seconds?
Regardless, Khulan raged against her inaction. This is what she had trained for! All she had to do was let the spear fly and she could mark down her first kill.
Was that it? Did it come down to the reality that she herself had never killed something before? Sure, she’d squashed an insect or bludgeoned a rodent but that was more of a reflex than the culmination of skill, timing, and proof of worth necessitated for this hunt. But she was the daughter of warriors, surely that would afford her some natural disposition to it.
Loosing a lazy yawn, the feline rose to its feet and slunk back towards an alcove that served as its den, the lair doubtlessly full of the mauled remains of its victims.
Khulan watched it go and, after what seemed another lifetime, lowered her spear. She’d come so far just to fail…again. Next time she would make certain not to fail. Not only for herself but also for her forebears who’d nobly died upon the battlefield. Khulan could practically feel their displeasure as she made her descent from the bluff.
At least her hands were steady now.
Trudging sorrowfully along mountain streams, Khulan passed down into the dell she knew as home, making her way through the fields of barley till she could see the stockade that served as the hamlet’s perimeter. At one time, the wall had been an impressive bulwark, but that was long before her. Now little remained of the original stone construction, save for the foundation, and they had filled the rest in with timber cut from deeper in the valley. Even the gate was nothing remarkable to behold and, at this point, rarely even closed. No conflict had marred the area for over a generation and other than a few threats of nature, there was little to fear.
Javier stood watch at the entry as he always did, a reminder that even in these peaceful times, the tribe needed to be on guard. His armor was not as resplendent as those Khulan had seen on the tapestries in the great hall or even her father’s suit that her nainai kept sealed away in the study. The charcoal color of Javier’s plate had faded from countless years of idly watching villagers pass back and forth, the edges of his cloak ragged like a hound that’d seen too many winters.
Despite her best effort, Khulan couldn’t help but see him that way, a once honorable wolf brought low by peace and age.
Old dog or not, there was nothing pitiable about the large bearded axe he always kept on hand. Supposedly, in his younger days, he’d used the weapon to slaughter packs of mutants and other foes of the Clan. It didn’t seem at all fanciful, considering the feats she’d had witnessed him perform during various spring festivals. In one celebration, he had felled an entire tree in one blow, a deed still lauded by most residents.
“And were you successful?” Javier rasped from beneath his helmet.
Khulan paused and looked at her spear for a lowly moment. “Not today.”
The old warrior nodded his head, the armor gently clinking from the movement. “Nature of the hunt. Some days we are blessed with abundance and others with famine. Regardless, we must thank the creator for the opportunity.”
Forcing a smile, Khulan moved past the elderly watchman to what served as the main thoroughfare of the community. It was little more than the same people trading the same items to each other every other day. If it was an auspicious occasion, they might decide to dig out old treasures they’d traded for years ago and attempt to pass them on to new owners, though more often exchange them back to their original holders. That was the way of the village, a wheel that ground on and seemed to grind down any true dreams of grandeur.
Khulan was determined not to be trapped in the same fate. After each year’s harvest, before they’d send their offerings off to the Chieftain, the town would see the arrival of a handful of merchants, humans usually, who’d bring with them strange and exciting wares from beyond the Clan and tell stories of toppled despots, deep coilers, and treasure. That was the life Khulan was determined to lead; leaving the bosom of the hamlet to journey south to glory. Now if only she could get her nainai to agree.
As was all too typical, her grandmother was pacing their garden, scrutinizing every plant as though they were soldiers on military parade. Weeds, blights, spoiling. None of it escaped her shrewd gaze and, like a saber cat might pounce, the old woman would swoop down and remove the offending element. Then the process would resume again till she’d covered the entire length of the garden. It might have been a bit of a comical viewing experience if Khulan hadn’t seen it over a thousand times.
“Where have you been?”
Her nainai hadn’t even looked at her, much less paused in her militant gardening. Yet somehow, she still knew her grandchild had arrived. There was no way to explain it. It was something she did.
Khulan tucked the spear by the door of their cottage. “I went hunting.”
“Hunting?” the old woman inquired as she violently removed a tiny weed from beside a crop of tsching tsae. “And what were you hunting for, may I ask?”
The response came with a sardonic snort. “Yes, well, I’m certain you weren’t hunting vegetables. What kind of animals? Stop being coy, girl.”
Khulan forcefully placed her hands on her hips; she was no child, fearing the disapproval of her grandmother. “Saber cats.”
Now the older woman did glance in her direction. “Oh? I was unaware you enjoyed the taste of saber cat. Has something changed in your diet that I do not know about?”
“Not to eat, nainai,” Khulan sighed. “Just to hunt. To protect the flocks…and our people!”
“Have we suddenly lost someone to a saber cat?””
“Well no…not recently.”
“Then pray tell why you feel the need to kill one now?”
Khulan unconsciously ground her teeth. Leave it to her nainai to not understand the warrior’s drive, the ever-present thirst for battle. Martial perfection was the legacy of every Dragoon and had to be revered and honed. They were not destined to spend their days tending fields and flocks, which was the duty of lesser beings like humans.
“Life is a precious thing, child. No matter how small you see it. We must cherish its existence, not simply the ability to take it away,” her grandmother stated. “Now go inside and prepare supper. And after that, you can muck the stalls.”
Khulan groaned. “But I did that yesterday!”
“Very well, then you can go over to the Hulett’s and clean theirs.”
Uttering a noise born of pure rage and frustration, Khulan stormed into the cottage, resigned that her life meant little more than eternal servitude.
The end of every week brought prayers and fasting, the village gathering in the great hall to hear the words of the creator offered to them via the cleric. He’d been dispatched to the region from the Dian-Cecht Tribe, though most residents couldn’t recall a time where he wasn’t around. At least Khulan couldn’t, the squat preacher an ever-present member of the community.
On this particularly warm day, he stood addressing the people and droning on about things that had long lulled Khulan into a semi-conscious state. Only the hardness of the wooden bench keeping her from falling into true sleep. Her nainai sat beside her, and the older woman nodded at the words being orated. There was such a rhythmic quality to it that Khulan found it was only contributing to her own drowsiness, and she shifted her focus to the large banner that hung behind the cleric, proudly displaying the heraldry of the Kappa Clan.
The blood orange hue of the fabric clashed drastically with the drab cloths of the preacher and made him seem somehow more insignificant. Khulan didn’t know what exploits the cleric could boast of, but she was willing to bet they were rather trivial compared to the splendor that banner had beheld. Border wars, conquests, and noble duels all had taken place under its dutiful gaze, many a brave warrior reaching a dying hand out to it in the last hope that touching it might somehow bring them closer to the creator.
This was the true nature of her people and once more she felt anger building up inside that they might somehow deprive it from her.
“Nainai, why won’t you let me train with my parent’s weapons?” Khulan asked as they filed out of the great hall, supposedly to spend the rest of the day contemplating the words they’d heard and the divine power of the creator. It seemed a waste of time.
Her grandmother paused with a sigh. “Why? Because you have no need for them. Last I knew, it didn’t require such firepower to hunt saber cats.”
“Not saber cats, but our enemies will.”
“And tell me, child,” the elderly woman began. “Who are our enemies? Have you seen them? Is there some secret camp of agitators nearby that you know of?”
Khulan couldn’t help but scowl. “Well, no.”
“Then you have no need of such weapons.”
“But we are Dragoons, nainai! We’re supposed to be warriors!” Her outburst was a little louder than she’d intended, and she felt her cheeks growing warm as what seemed like half the village stopped to stare her way. Grumbling, her nainai took hold of her sleeve and dragged her away from the great hall; it did little to make it less of a scene.
With a strength uncanny for her age, the older woman shoved Khulan against the wall of a nearby cottage. “So you want to be a soldier, do you? Want to go off and fight like your parents!?”
“…yes,” Khulan squeaked. She was suddenly afraid of this side of her grandmother.
“They died, girl!”
That anger she’d had during the sermon came surging back. “They did their duty! They honored the Clan!”
“That doesn’t make them any less dead!”
Tears filled her eyes, and Khulan curled her hands into fists. She wasn’t about to strike her nainai, but she wanted to hit something; anything to vent these feelings, or perhaps just to give her some semblance of control.
“Child, your parents went off to fight so that you wouldn’t have to. They died so you could grow up in a world of peace. That is the true nature of a warrior, to bring an end to the fighting. We are not humans meant to squabble over petty nonsense. As you said, we are Dragoons. Made in the image of man, but so much more than that. The creator has entrusted the future of their race and the future of the planet to us. We mustn’t squander it purely out of a selfish desire to exert our strength.”
Khulan stood there in silence as somehow her mind tried to make sense of what was being said and the sea of emotions that were churning inside of her. There was logic to what her nainai was saying, perhaps even some gratitude that it’d been said.
But the rest sounded like another excuse to rob her of any chance of achieving glory or worth in her life. It was as if the harder she wanted to cling to her heritage, the more the old woman wanted to restrain her. Nothing more than a wolf muzzled as a pet.
Suddenly, she couldn’t help but pity everyone in the village.
Glaring at her grandmother, Khulan felt her mouth form into a vengeful sneer. “Perhaps if you weren’t such a coward, nainai, you’d have died in my parents’ place!” The moment she said it, she regretted it and, frankly, was terrified of what the repercussions might be from it.
Not wishing to face either, Khulan took off, running as fast as she could down the muddy streets till she passed the ever-present form of Javier at the palisade and slipped out the gate into the fields. There was no telling if she’d be pursued or not, and using that unknown as fuel, she kept sprinting till she had pushed up from the floor of the glade into the rocky heights that surrounded it.
There was no doubt her plan was ill conceived and foolish. Just how long was she to hide out in the mountains she had no idea, but sundown would see the temperature drop, not to mention the food or other supplies she’d failed to bring with her. If her stubbornness turned to resilience and she could remain in the hills overnight, it was only a matter of time before exposure took its toll on her. And that was if the wildlife didn’t take an interest in her first.
Working to stifle tears, Khulan hugged her knees. The anger had somewhat subsided but was instead replaced with a deep pain in her chest; a longing that seemed to tear at her very soul. It screamed for purpose, for justice, and the overwhelming need to fulfill one’s destiny.
This scrap of country was not what’d she’d been born for, regardless of what her nainai said. In her veins was the blood of greatness, progeny of warlords and demigods. But she would fade into the nothingness of time if she didn’t take an opportunity to set off into the world.
A cascade of pebbles snapped her back to the present, and Khulan fearfully hunkered down against the stones in the hopes of better concealing herself from whatever had caused the miniature avalanche. In her mind it was her nainai, the old woman having found her and having a switch in hand to enact quick punishment. It’d been years since her grandmother had hit her, but the memory of the experience was hardly forgotten.
Whether for good or ill, the interloper was not anyone she knew, or even a person. Looking down at her from atop a nearby outcropping was none other than the beast she’d so arrogantly tried to hunt not a few days past. If there was malice or recognition, it did not show on the saber cat’s face and the powerful feline stared at her in such a static manner it was almost as if it were a statue.
Khulan found her eyes locking with the animal’s, and for the first time, she contemplated the pigment of the beast’s irises. It seemed an amalgam of colors, an impossible mixture that not even the finest jewelers could hope to replicate. If this was to be the face of her death, at least there was some beauty to it.
Such forlorn thoughts passed in an instant as her anger returned in one intoxicating surge. She had a future she was fated for, and it did not see her dead on the mountainside by wild beasts at the age of fourteen. No, she would prove her superiority to this creature and return to the village as the girl who’d slain a saber cat with naught but her bare hands.
Let her nainai dismiss her then!
Teeth grinding each other in something akin to a snarl, Khulan took hold of a rock, relishing the pain as its sharp edges drove themselves into her palm. This would be the weapon she laid her life upon, and with it, she’d emerged victorious. She had to. She would not permit this to be the end of her story. Her parents had given their lives in the Clan’s name, soldiering as they’d been called to do. Their sacrifice could not be wasted by letting their only child be disemboweled by some dumb animal.
“Come on,” Khulan whispered, perhaps to herself, perhaps to the saber cat. She wasn’t sure, the adrenaline giving her murderous tunnel vision.
Suddenly, the beast moved, its muscles rippling beneath its fur.
The action startled Khulan, and she nearly lost her footing. But the feline didn’t lunge at her or even advance in her direction. Instead, it glanced over its shoulder and then turned heel. There was no urgency or fear to its act, the move little more than idly deciding to take a nap.
It took Khulan a moment to register what had happened. “No!” she screamed, waving the rock angrily in the direction the saber cat had disappeared. “Fight me!”
If the creature heard or understood her words, it made no sign, and after a moment, it still failed to reemerge on its perch. Bitter tears she’d struggled to keep at bay were unleashed and spilled out onto the highlands as she mimed throwing the stone again and again.
Khulan couldn’t bring herself to pursue the animal, all of it seeming so foolhardy at this point. Not even nature viewed her as a competitor. Truly, she was to perish in this tranquil place, a wolf pup that never learned to bare its fangs.
It might have been hours she sat on those rocks and cried, begging that she might disappear into nothingness. To lose all these dreams and all this pain before life forced her to face the mediocrity of her destiny. The ages of martial glory had passed before her time, and now she was a benefactor living in their shadow. The inequality of it was enough to cause her to beat her fists against the stones till they turned bloody.
Someone would never weave tapestries in her name, nor would warriors share her exploits around the fire. If she was blessed, she might share the accounts of her parents with her own children, though at this point that seemed little more than a curse.
Hands throbbing, Khulan plodded down from the bluffs, noting the low position of the sun. She’d return home, face any punishment she warranted, and then resign herself to this agrarian purgatory. Other than running away, there seemed little else to do, and even she wasn’t rash enough to do that. It was thirty kilometers to the next settlement, and she didn’t know the terrain, not to mention the neighboring village was owned by her own tribe, and they’d turn her back over to face grandmother’s justice.
No, she was a prisoner in this serene place: a captive of the gilded cage.
She smelled the visitors before she saw them, the scent of burned fuel carrying on the wind. Curiosity replacing self-loathing, Khulan scurried closer to the stockade as she caught sight of the large reinforced motorbike resting just outside the village. A Dragoon stood beside the vehicle, wholly encased in the armor of the Kappa Clan.
This was not the dilapidated and depressing plate of Javier but regal and brilliant as what was embroidered in the great hall. It was as though they’d stepped from stories into the flesh, and Khulan couldn’t help but stare. A panabas rested lazily across their shoulder while sheathed at their hip was a brace of tomahawks.
“Hello,” Khulan said, all too aware of her distorted reflection in the visor of the warrior’s helmet.
They said nothing in return but turned their head to reveal a multicolored braid descending out the helm, the hair mixed with hues that Khulan knew were impossible without some kind of chemical treatment that was inaccessible to the village. Whoever this warrior was, they had journeyed from far beyond the tribe, perhaps all the way from the capital. Such a concept was so alien to Khulan that it may have well been another world.
“There she is,” the familiar raspy voice of Javier announced, causing Khulan to finally look away from the armored stranger.
The old watchman strode towards her, accompanied by another new Dragoon, this one carrying their helmet in their arm and with a stately fur-lined cloak clasped about their throat. Compared to this newcomer, Javier seemed pitiful, reinforcing the old hound imagery Khulan had long attributed to him.
“You are Khulan?” the helmetless Dragoon asked as he drew nearer.
She was close enough that she could make out the sigil on his cloak’s broach and identify it as belonging to the Nemain Tribe. In all her years she had only seen their crest in books, and for a member of the Clan’s military sect to visit her bogan village, something significant must have occurred.
Javier gestured at her with his axe. “Answer him, girl.”
“Yes!” she practically shouted in reply, unprepared for how loud her own voice was.
The helmetless Dragoon dropped to one knee before her, his armor clinking as the plates shifted. Khulan could see what resembled faint traces of circuitry in his angular shaped eyes, and she had to wonder if perhaps he somehow had technology woven into them.
“We need to speak to your grandmother.”
The meeting with her nainai didn’t seem to take very long, though Khulan wasn’t privy to the exact details of the exchange, as they had made her stand outside their cottage and wait. Not that she’d been alone in her task. Javier, and what seemed to be a quarter of the village, huddled around the house for any scrap of information regarding their armored visitors.
When the cloaked Dragoon exited, the people parted for him like water flowing around a rock. They all reverently watched him tromp off back towards the stockade, where his companion still waited with their transport.
“Shoo, you nosey crows!” the old woman ordered as she appeared in the doorway.
A collective groan rippled through the gathered throng, and everyone shot a hopeful gaze at Khulan’s grandmother as if collectively their will could prompt her to spill some iota of information to them. Instead, all they received was a stern glare and, within moments, the crowd dispersed. Khulan noted Javier was one of the last to leave, offering the elderly lady a respectful nod before trudging off.
Barely able to contain her excitement, Khulan hurried inside her home, noting that the hall still had the lingering scent of the Dragoon. She couldn’t tell if the odor was a metallic aroma from his armor or perhaps what a true warrior smelled like. Giggling to herself, she inhaled deeply as though drawing in the smell might draw in some trace of his essence.
Her nainai’s severe countenance was enough to squelch her excitement. “All is not forgiven.” As if on impulse, Khulan swallowed, the back of her legs recalling the pain of being hit all those years ago. “Running off does nothing but waste your time and mine. You should consider that if you ever want to be taken seriously.”
Khulan found herself staring at the floorboards. “Yes, nainai.”
“There’ll come a time when you need to grow up. When you have to stop romanticizing the past, stop daydreaming about your future, and simply focus on the present.”
“That time is now,” her grandmother declared as she marched past Khulan to the boarded door that sealed off the old study.
“I don’t understand.”
The only answer she received was her nainai rearing back and kicking the wooden barricade. It buckled from the impact but didn’t break, the planks defiantly remaining in place. Without a word, the old woman kicked the wood once more, and this time, Khulan could see it fracturing from the blow. Another hit was enough to shatter a large portion of it.
“Nainai, what’s happening?”
Taking hold of the splintered boards, her grandmother began ripping them back till she could reach the door itself. In her vigilance years before, the old woman had seen fit to padlock the entry itself before she’d boarded up, and now channeling whatever rage had possessed her, she took hold of the shackle and ripped it free with one powerful tug.
Dread filled Khulan as she followed her nainai through the twisted remains of the planks and into the dusty interior of the study. It hadn’t changed since the last time she’d snuck in via the window, the shelves and books still layered in years of disuse and grime.
An intimidating war-mace hung from a placard on the wall, supposedly an heirloom that’d been passed down to each generation. Khulan had long stared up at it, imagining the strength it’d take to sweep it through hordes of foes.
In the center of the room, like some venerated effigy, was her father’s armor, the luster of the plate marred by neglect. Every time she entered the study, it called to her, and she’d spent many an hour fantasizing about wearing it into battle. Their blood, stamina, and strength all were hallmarks of the superiority of a Dragoon, but it was the armor that was the true icon of their dominance. The very sight of it had made enemies quake, and feeling its mighty embrace was Khulan’s birthright.
Sighing, her grandmother moved to the armor.
“You’ve gotten your wish, child,” the old woman whispered as she picked up the horned helmet. “War has come.”
The words rocked Khulan, the impossibility of them nearly causing her to gasp. It all made sense, though. Why else would members of the Nemain Tribe visit them? Could there be another reason that after all this time, her nainai would reopen the study?
Mouth now dry, Khulan struggled to find her tongue. “Where?”
Slowly, her grandmother dissembled the protective suit, “South. Humans have laid siege to one of our cities. The Chieftain has ordered the tribes be rallied to relieve it and drive the enemy out of Kappa land.”
Khulan watched as her nainai laid out pieces of the armor. It was clear the handling of it was not unknown to her. “Then…I am to go south?”
“No,” the old woman answered.
Khulan thrust up her hands in frustration. “Then why am I here?”
“To prepare me to go south.”
They stood is silence for a long moment, Khulan watching her grandmother clean the armor before producing a set of long knives from a corner drawer and began sharpening them. All the care and attention she’d given the garden was now directed at these instruments of death, and it was a sobering sight to behold.
“Seems my duty as a warrior is not yet done.”
Khulan helped her nainai for the rest of night, finally being taught the skills she had so longed for. But there wasn’t the excitement or joy that she’d always imagined she’d have, and more than once, she felt herself fighting back tears. She couldn’t tell if they were because of the imbalance of the situation or perhaps the lingering fear that she might lose the only family member she had left.
The light of dawn crept over the valley as they finished the final touches on the armor. As they strapped it around her, it made her grandmother seem regal and deific, a hero of old brought to life in their very home. With no sign of effort, the old woman pulled the mace down from the wall and deftly worked it through her hands. Khulan watched it with a sense of bittersweet awe.
“Mind the garden,” her nainai instructed, as if nothing was amiss. “And make sure the Hulett’s flock doesn’t feed too close to the bluffs. These are your responsibilities now.”
Khulan nodded vigorously, trying hard to keep from crying.
Grabbing the helm, the old woman leaned down towards her. “You’re no longer a child now. Remember that. There are people who will look to you now. Be strong and live well.”
As if to hide her own impending tears, her nainai fitted the helmet over her head, the metal shod horns catching the morning rays in a look of ferocious brilliance.
She triumphantly strode forth from the study, Khulan watching her exit the cottage out to where the cloaked Dragoon was already waiting for her.
In one final gesture, the warrior who’d moments before had been her grandmother turned back and gazed at her, her expression hidden beneath her visor. But Khulan felt its meaning. And with that, her nainai stepped away towards death and glory.
Khulan never saw her again.