The Queen and the Captain
The field of battle had gone quiet. For a moment, Teela thought it might be over, but she had been in enough battles to know that a sudden quiet only meant that things were about to get much worse. The sky had gone orange with dark, green storm clouds and the air so thick that drops of sweat and blood floated briefly before bursting.
The only warriors bleeding were her own.
A mass of fleshless creatures suddenly massed directly in front of her, all bone and cloth and steel. Teela’s sword swung with a precision born of single-minded dedication, but she only deflected the rush of attacks; there were too many to counter. Instinct and training guided her blade. She couldn’t tell one foe from the next as they pressed and hissed. Slowly, she was forced back.
Other guardsmen soon attacked the enemy’s flank; Teela tried to withdrawal into the safety of friends in green and yellow armor, but the arm that grabbed her was garbed in blue. She was roughly pulled out of harm’s way and lifted to stand against a broken wall. Somehow, Mekaneck managed to register his disapproval of her with just a look despite the fact that his helmet covered everything but his thin lips. She yanked her arm out of his grasp. “Get back to the fight,” she ordered.
“Men are getting hurt because they’re worrying about you,” growled through gritted teeth.
Teela tried to focus her anger into an appropriately caustic response, but the words wouldn’t come and Mekaneck didn’t wait for her anyway. The neck that had earned him his name was suddenly extending, lifting his head an additional three meters so that he could scan the battle with his enhanced vision. He read the battle and gave orders to the platoon commander through his headset, waited to see that those orders were understood and followed, and then waded back into the battle, swinging a mace that shattered the evil bone warriors.
“Your plan is good, but I want you to stay behind this time,” Mekaneck told her, his head slightly raised, Teela noticed, and felt like he was doing it intentially so that it looked like he was looking directly down on her.
She stepped back and crossed her arms. “That’s what you said last time.”
“Last time was only four days ago; not a lot has changed since then.”
“We won based on my battle plan and we will win this battle based on my battle plan.” Mekaneck said nothing, infuriating her all the more. “I passed every test a guardsmen is required to take two years ago. I waited months for someone to agree to let me join their company. That someone was you; it was the happiest day of my life. But now you tell me I can’t fight.”
“Teela, when I agreed to let you join the squad, it was a different time. We weren't at war. We don't even know what these things are yet. I can’t have my men looking out for you in a situation like this.”
Teela’s had to suppress an urgent need to reach for her sword. “I will challenge you to a duel right now.”
Now Mekaneck took a step back, waving his arms dismissively. “And you would win. I’ve seen you with the sword. But what would that prove?”
Teela took a deep breath. “It would prove that you couldn’t stop me if I joined the battle without your permission.” She spun on her heel and stormed off, leaving Mekaneck to think that this was just the type of behavior that made him want to keep her out of the battle.
Watching her father stand in front of a room of soldiers was strangely comforting to Teela. She had been sitting in the front row or next to him at the war table for as long as she could remember. Man-at-Arms had never given a speech about how he had expected his daughter treated. He had never insisted they treat her like a lady or like the soldier she was trying to be. Teela had earned the respect of most of these men, not because of her father, but because of her own actions on and off the battlefield.
But no battle had been like this one. Skirmishes with Gar raiders and rogue beast tribes hadn’t prepared Eternia for its new foe.
The unnamed enemy had sent over a hundred skeletal soldiers. Even as they were decimated, none ran. To the last, the skeletal creatures had bit and scratched and stabbed at the Eternian defense. Less than a dozen guardsmen had fallen, twice that wounded, some seriously. In another situation, her father would have declared today a great victory. But it was clear that today’s attack and the similar attacks of previous weeks were just tests and harassment.
Emissaries had been sent all over Eternia to find information about the strange army’s origin. Nothing. It was almost as if they sprung from the ground fully formed on the battlefield. Indeed, some of the magicians were looking into the possibility. None of them could imagine a modern power capable of attack.
Man-at-Arms finished listing the dead and wounded. “A few weeks ago, over half of our guardsmen had never seen battle and only a handful remember war. Our training has served to this point, but there’s just not enough of us to deal with what we’re seeing out there. We will be sending word throughout Eternia that we have opened our ranks and will be accepting new guardsmen. We will try to give these new men the same training experience as we have always provided, but I can’t promise that we’ll have time.”
“Some of those men will be women, I hope,” Teela interjected.
There was a smattering of laughter. Teela tried to see who was laughing, but they quieted quickly under her glare. “We will see,” was all her father said.
Man-at-Arms stepped up on a chair so that he could see the whole room. A few of the men were in bandages, but morale was high after such a victory. Even the ambiguity of the battle could not dull the rush of victory. “I do have one specific commendation to make today. One squad among you lost no one. And its injuries amount to scrapes and bruises no worse than we could expect from a training exercise.” Everyone looked around, wondering who had pulled off such a feat. Teela almost leapt out of her seat before her father could say her name. “Mekaneck,” he said. “Come over here and let us shake your hand.”
She watched Mekaneck walk to the front of the room, grasp her father’s hand, and then wave off the cheers of his brothers as if he was some sort of humble mensch. Teela bit through her bottom lip. Mekaneck was technically the squad leader, but Teela had trained the squad and devised the battle plan. The only thing Mekaneck deserved to be congratulated for was staying out of her way. But there he was, taking the credit and not even glancing her way.
Teela relied on years of training to sneak quietly out of the room.
Teela did not cry. She knew that men thought crying was a weakness, though she had seen many men in cry before, during, and after battle. She didn’t just want to be their equal, she wanted to be better than them. She walked the halls of the palace searching for distraction. A light in the King’s armory drew her into magnificent room, usually sealed and guarded, though she had visited it with the prince and her father many times.
A large, disassembled rifle lay on the long center table in dozens of small pieces. Teela knew the weapon well. It was called Queen’s Blade. And the Queen herself now cleaned it.
“Excuse me, your majesty,” Teela said. “I didn’t expect to find you here. I thought to find your lazy son.”
“A weapon fired must be cleaned,” Queen Marlena said. “I would welcome your company, Teela.”
“I did not know you still practiced shooting, your majesty.” Teela stood across from the Queen, looking over the magnificent weapon. She had never seen it apart like this, although it was similar to other rifles she’d cleaned herself. This one had more pieces, several she didn’t recognize at all, and no operating crystals that she could see.
Marlena answered, “It’s true that I don’t practice enough, but today was not a day for practice.”
Teela crushed the sudden rush of giddiness she felt. “You joined the battle? When? Where? You must tell me more.” She paused, annoyed at herself. “Your majesty,” she added.
“Let’s not let it get out to our loyal guardsmen just yet, Teela. The glory of today’s victory is all theirs. I certainly won’t take any credit for hiding in a window sniping a few monsters while they bled on the ground.”
Teela felt even more pride in her noble Queen. “But how many do you think you got?”
The Queen smiled shyly. “A lady never tells,” she said. Her small hands never stopped moving over her weapon, scraping and oiling and polishing each piece. “I’m just kidding. Seventeen.” She was pleased to hear Teela’s gasp. “Now, what has the brave warrior Teela, future captain of the guard, wandering the castle halls?”
“I was just thinking about the battle.”
“It was well fought,” the Queen praised. “Your squad in particular walked away with little more than a scratch.”
“You heard? How?”
“I have long followed your career, Teela. I remember when you disarmed a cocky new guardsman for the first time. You were eight, as I recall.”
“Yes, your majesty.” Teela remembered the moment well. Anytime a guardsman looked down on her, she remembered the red face of the first man she had stripped of weapon and reputation. But she couldn’t forget what had happened tonight. “It seems like I’d have to disarm the whole service to get any respect from them.”
“Now you know that’s not quite true. It’s certainly not the whole truth. I didn’t see any other girls on the battlefield today. You have been trusted to defend Eternia side by side with guardsmen for over a year now. You are a year younger than the youngest and the only woman that has fought in many years.”
“But when will they stop seeing me as an exception and start seeing me as one of them?”
The Queen actually giggled. “Teela, sweet Teela. That will never happen.”
“What do you mean it will never happen? I’m going to make it happen.”
“Teela, you may become the greatest warrior Eternia has ever known, but that will not make you one of them.”
“But why aren’t there female guardsmen? There’s not even a rule against it. Why do they treat us this way?”
Now the Queen did set aside her weapon to look at Teela deep green eyes and take her strong wrists in her hands. “I remember when Mekaneck was hurt fighting Mer-Man. The Mer-Man creature came onto the beach just for the thrill of the slaughter. He killed dozens, including Mekaneck’s family--two daughters, his wife. So much blood. Mekaneck became a hero to all of us that day and your father saved his life. I’m sure you’re familiar with the results.
“Guardsmen think they are becoming guardsmen to protect women and children.”
“I can protect myself.”
“Teela, none of us can protect ourselves. That’s the most foolish thing I may have ever heard you say. We build this city and sign truces and raise our children under the rule of law because we know that the only way to truly be protected is to stand together. Every guardsmen that swears his--” there was a slight pause. “knows this truth. If we could protect ourselves from beast men and shadow beasts and Gar anarchists, we wouldn’t need guardsmen in the first place. But we do. And we need you too, Teela.”
“Why don’t more women unite for this protection you say we need?”
“There isn’t a single Eternian woman I know that isn’t doing her part. In order to change people’s expectations, we must first understand them. One day, things may be different and more will find a place in uniform. We will work towards that goal together, Teela. You may become the beacon that women rally behind for hundreds of years to come.”
Cloaked in shadow, sitting silently just outside the room, Prince Adam listened to every word.