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The Battle of Dor-Otariel
The sun had not yet begun to creep over the mountains and the air had still a few degrees to drop before it reached the chill of early morning. Specks of dancing flame were scattered among the white tents that glowed in the moonlight. Silhouettes of soldiers huddled around the fires, their gleaming armor strewn about their sleeping forms. A few yards off, the heads of two young girls poked above the shadow of a boulder.
Leda ducked back down behind the rock, and clutched her arms. The hem of her skirt was drenched in dew.
"What are we doing here, Sorrel?" she said.
"What?" Sorrel said. "Speak up, girl. I can't hear you when you whisper like that."
"Just because Iphigenia sneaked into the army doesn't mean you have to go and ambush the enemy camp. By Goddess, you're a twelve-year-old girl! Besides, you're this close," she held up her thumb and index finger a centimeter apart, "to getting your name. If you're caught now your name will mean something like...oh, I don't know...disobedience or shameful-born. Then you'll really have a reason to be jealous of Iphigenia."
In Dor Otariel, the city just east of the Tanith Mountains, a girl was given her name when she came of age at thirteen. The name would reflect the girl's personality and characteristics, such as Morfindel—dark hair—or Iphigenia—strong-born. Until she turned thirteen, a girl would use a short name given to her at birth. Sorrel and Leda were only months away from claiming their names, and Leda, unlike Sorrel, grew more and more conscious of how she was seen in the eyes of her namers as the day approached.
Sorrel crept out from behind the rock. She waved a hand for Leda to follow. It was too dark to see Sorrel's face, but Leda knew she was grinning to herself in anticipation.
"Oh, Goddess..." Leda said.
Sorrel skimmed over the grass like an dragonfly. Her skirt fluttered around her knees, soaked to a dark purple. Needles of light were just beginning to edge over the pointed tips of the mountains. The air was a thin gray now, and hung with beads of moisture. Leda rubbed her arms, covered in goosebumps, then scrambled after Sorrel.
Behind a white tent, Leda said, "What the hell are you doing?"
Sorrel put a finger to her lips.
"Now you tell me to be quiet!"
Sorrel pulled Leda's sleeve, pointed to a cluster of horses. "See those?" she said. "The horses are already saddled, no?"
"What about them?"
"It means this army will be riding off to raid our city by mid-morning."
Leda saw the horses, soldiers in bright armor, galloping toward her city like a landslide. She saw them slash down men and children alike, and capture the women in great nets to be slaves or...Leda shivered again, but not from the cold. It wasn't until she shook away the horrible image that she realized Sorrel was gone.
"Sorrel!" Leda said, then pressed a hand over her mouth and glanced around with wide eyes. She took her hand from her mouth to hiss, "Sorrel, come back!"
The other girl was a tent away now, across a path of grass between the rows of tents. A soldier, dressed in bright red sprinkled with gold stars, sat against his bag, his chin on his chest and hands folded in his lap. His shoulders rose and fell.
Leda bit her fingernails.
The tent behind which Sorrel hid seemed a mile away, across a vast plain of trembling grass. Leda took a deep breath, cursed Sorrel's defiance, ran.
She nearly tripped on a thick patch of earth in the center of the path. She threw her hands forward to catch herself, but her feet kept moving on their own. She tumbled into Sorrel's arms.
"Shh. There's nothing to be afraid of." Sorrel's voice was calm, but, though she couldn't see Sorrel's face, Leda could hear her smirk.
Leda shook off her friend and brushed her hands on her sleeves. She glowered at Sorrel, who laughed once and darted off again.
This time, Leda took after Sorrel, dashing between tents, stopping occasionally to check that the coast was clear and catch her breath. Her slippers, her green leather shoes with the buckle and embroidered beads that her mother had made, were wet to a dark green, almost black. Sorrel had taken off her shoes long ago, and tucked them in the pocket of her shirt. Now she bent to tie up her dripping skirt to her mid-thighs in a knot that hung by the side of her knee.
The mountains that surrounded the valley kept the camp in a dim shadow. Sunlight was starting to dodge between the tips of the mountains in glowing circles of light, freckled with shining drops of moisture. The first beams spilled over the edges like streams of water.
Leda gazed at the light, her jaw slacked, hypnotized. It was as if a pillar of light and goodness from the gods had arrived to show her to safety in the midst of this field of her enemies, away from the swords and armor and fighting.
A rustle from not so far away shook her from her daze.
Her muscles tightened. Her heart beat like the thunder of marching soldiers. She grabbed Sorrel's arm and could feel her friend tremble.
Sorrel took a deep breath, but made sure it was silent, so whatever was moving around the corner of the tent wouldn't hear them.
She was suddenly aware of the cold, exposed air. For once Leda longed for the security of humidity, the thick warm air that was like a blanket concealing them from enemy eyes. But it was not humid, and it felt more like her blanket had been blown off during the night. Fog crawled along the craggy edges of the mountains beyond the camp, and Leda wished they were down here to gather around the two girls.
It rustled again. Sorrel gripped Leda's hand like a snake, sticky with sweat despite the prickling chill. She glanced around the corner of the white tent.
A soldier in the red and gold tunic of the enemy sat against his bag, and turned in his sleep.
Sorrel looked back to Leda.
"It's just a sleeping soldier," she said. "Come on."
Leda knew better than to try and stop her now. Earlier she might have been able to dissuade Sorrel from straying into the enemy camp. The tallest tree was easier to budge than Sorrel when she had set her mind upon something. So Leda slipped off her shoes and dashed after her friend.
They zigzagged between the tents. Sometimes they passed so close to dozing soldiers that Leda could feel their warm breath on her ankles.
Sorrel moved like a wisp of foam in a river. Even in the stillness of the gray morning her footsteps made only the sound of the crushing of grass, but only barely, under her toes. It was as if she were flying.
When Sorrel came to a halt, crouching behind a tent, Leda nearly tripped over her. Instead she fell to her hands and knees on the grass. Just beyond the tent twenty horses were tied up at a post. Leda opened her mouth to speak, but shut it again when she heard voices.
"We shall march around Dor Otariel this way," a male voice said, accompanied by the shuffling of papers, "and take it from the north. Their only watchtower stands on the southeast corner of the city so we should have no trouble taking them by surprise."
"Yes, yes," another voice said. "We'll send in, say, three thousand men the first round. Then dispatch another ten thousand men to keep the natives down. Should thirteen thousand be enough, general?"
"I say five thousand men should wait here, sire, concealed by the trees along the southern side of Dor Otariel, and another five thousand on the eastern side, since the western border is kept closed by the mountains. We can send in those men when we advance the ten thousand from the north to surround and choke the city."
"Yes...yes, very good, general. We depart when the sun breaks over the peaks."
The more Leda listened, the tighter her throat became, the heavier her heart beat, the more her limbs ached to move. She tugged Sorrel's sleeve.
"Do you hear that?" she said. "Now we must go. We have to warn the king. We have to."
Sorrel took the knife from the waistband of her skirt. She drew it like a bandit and discarded the scabbard in the grass.
"What," Leda said. "You think that little thing is going to kill those two men in there who plot the downfall of your city? I've had enough of your foolishness, Sorrel. We have to go."
But Sorrel was already gone.
With her knife she slit the cinch of a horse's saddle till the girth hung loose beneath the horse's belly. It didn't fall low enough to be obviously loose, but enough to slip when a rider mounted. This she did to every horse on the post, then she sprinted around to the neighboring posts and cut the cinches on those horses too.
The horse tied outside the tent in which the two men spoke was heavily adorned with gold and gems. It was the prince's horse, and Sorrel knew that the army wouldn't go anywhere without the prince.
She slashed at the cinch, and it fell limp.
"Let's go!" she said, and grabbed Leda's arm. They sprinted back the way they had come.
The sun was beginning to rise over the mountains. Sorrel glanced once at the lazy glow behind the peaks and kept running.
"Wait!" Leda said. "Not so fast—"
She tripped over a sleeping soldier. Her stomach lurched when she hit the grass, from the fall, and from the horror of the soldier that woke immediately, grabbed her ankle, and said, "What the hell...?"
Leda struggled in the soldier's grasp. Sorrel tugged on her arm. But his grip was like stone. When he reached for his sword, lying beside him on the grass, Sorrel ground her teeth and kicked him in the side.
He groaned and let go of Leda, who scrambled away before leaping to her feet and running.
Their skirts, which had now freed themselves from the knots, waved wildly around their feet. Leda pressed her shoes to her chest. Men were beginning to wake up, alerted by the soldier's cry.
There was a whoosh behind them and a red-feathered arrow embedded itself in the ground two feet to Leda's right. She jumped when another arrow missed her by an inch.
Sorrel dragged Leda behind the boulder where they had been hiding before, and a rain of arrows crashed onto the other side of the rock like hail on a window. Leda clutched her shoes and whimpered, her eyes wide and hysterical. Her teeth chattered.
Sorrel laughed. "That was fun!" she said. "The idiots can't aim."
"Are you kidding?" Leda said. "If not for this rock we'd be skewered!"
Before Sorrel could answer, the arrows stopped. The silence was unsettling. Sorrel's smile dropped from her face and she frowned. "What...?"
She crawled to her knees and stuck her head above the rock. The soldiers had turned away. The prince and his general came out of the tent, shouting orders for the soldiers to mount their horses and circle the city north.
Leda fixed Sorrel with her best look of disapproval. "What were you thinking?Your plan could never work," Leda said. "There are too many soldiers You can't stop all of them with a few damaged saddles."
The prince put his foot in his stirrup and pulled up. He fell with a thud that could be heard by the two girls, half the camp away and up the hill. The prince jumped back up, his face as red as a beet. "Get me a saddle!" he cried. "Get me a saddle now!"
Chaos ensued. The soldiers scrambled this way and that. The sun was shining over the mountains. By the prince's orders, the soldiers should have been galloping toward Dor Otariel, but instead they were scouring the camp for a saddle. The nearest saddles had been cut, as their riders had found at the price of a sore bottom. Several soldiers removed the saddles from their own horses, farther away, but they were crushed in the mess of panicked men.
It was then the rumbling started. It shook the trees and ground, and Leda and Sorrel clung to the rock in hopes that they would not fall off the earth. It grew, like an approaching hurricane. The still air became restless, and quaked along with the rest of the world.
The soldiers from Dor Otariel, atop their graceful horses, swarmed into the camp. Their swords shone bright in the light of the rising sun. Battle cries echoed against the mountains. The tents were felled like trees under a logger's ax. Enemy soldiers drew their swords as well, or brandished long spears, but the swords were too small against Iphigenia's horsemen, and the spears were knocked away. Soldiers on foot were flattened by the stampeding hooves. The enemy soldiers fled.
From the boulder on the hill, the short battle looked like two crashing waves of yellow and blue, red and gold. By the end, it was a solid lump.
Iphigenia stood upon her horse and flung her helmet into the air to the cheering of her soldiers.
As the young woman was lifted from her horse and hailed as a heroine down below, Sorrel and Leda sat cross-legged on the rock and clasped their hands, their knowing grins reflected in the morning light.