I rubbed my eyes, yawning. Around me marched some five-hundred soldiers on horseback, and in the center of this small regiment beside me rode Ryukou, High General Oimé, and my father. The army was divided into two main units, one led by Oimé, and the other led by Shiroku, one of our other generals. We had departed at dawn that morning, barely having time for a substantial breakfast in those gloomy wee hours, and now I was beginning to feel the effects of it, though noon had only just passed.
After a while, I began to study my surroundings to distract myself from my weariness. I had been away from home before, of course, but Gō Ataru was a large city in relation to the others in Akata. It always struck me how seemingly wild everything was in comparison to the city.
The road we travelled passed through many towns and villages, but the land in between settlements was covered in untamed plant life, untouched by human necessity for the most part, except for the dirt road itself. Wherever I looked, my eyes were met with green. In the distance, I spotted the snow-peaked mountains that rose into the sky like giant, jagged obelisks. Flanking our left side was an ever broadening forest. As the afternoon faded away, our division neared the entrance to the forest, leaving the road behind. I found this strange.
When I expressed my confusion to Ryukou, he said, “The main road travels in a sort of roundabout fashion around the woods. If we continued to follow it, we’d end up having to pass through a collection of small clusters of buildings too small to be called villages, and it would take us several extra days to reach our destination. Don’t worry, we won’t get lost.” He smiled reassuringly. “I’ve traveled through these woods several times, and Father has been through here even more than me. That’s not to mention the experienced trackers that make up the soldiers ranks.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t quite convinced. Who knew what was in the forest, hidden from our gazes? I had only fought in battles nearer to the south, where the land was flatter and large, wide-open stretches of land dominated the terrain, so tall trees made me nervous.
The Demali had been our enemies since before I was born. Demali and Akata shared a border in the east, and the barbaric warriors constantly marched past to take over our land, practically pouring in like an infestation. The ruthless bastards had caused a lot of problems in Akata, attacking defenseless villages, stealing from our temples, and staining our soil with blood. I knew that if I ever met with one of their leaders, I wouldn’t hesitate to strike him down and spit at his burial site.
The farther we travelled, the thicker the foliage grew, and soon, nary a step would go by in which Kiro’s hooves weren’t sinking into some sort of vegetation. Everything was enveloped in shadows as the trees surrounded the obscure little path we had begun to follow, the fading light trickling weakly through the canopy. I felt trapped in all the greenery. I very quickly began to long for the vast openness of the whirling sea that bordered Gō Ataru.
My apprehension wasn’t entirely without reason, I later learned. The forest, Ryukou explained, made it very easy for their enemies to ambush us unexpectedly, using the shadowy recesses as a sort of shield. In fact, I noticed that the soldiers seemed tense, flicking their eyes back and forth alertly. An audible sigh of relief passed over the group as we exited the trees and found the main road again.
When the sky had darkened enough that it made travel difficult, we stopped by the side of the road. After tethering the horses, the men began to set up camp, building fires, pitching tents, laying out bedrolls, preparing dinner, and other miscellaneous tasks.
I dismounted Kiro gratefully and stumbled, sore from the day of continuous travel. I watched, preoccupied, as one of the soldiers led my horse away.
I dragged my feet toward one of the fires being built and plopped to the ground, disregarding the fact that it was mostly dirt. I was so tired, I could have lain in a pile of only brambles and pebbles and not complained. I leaned my chin forward on my knees and hugged my legs and, unspeaking, watched as a soldier started up a fire.
Finally, the fire flickered to life and surrounded the wood in rivulets of yellow and orange. I immediately felt warmer, and my eyelids began to droop. I blinked slowly, fighting off sleep, and watched the greedy flames eat up and lick the firewood, staring curiously at how the saturated light seemed to give everything a mysterious cast.
It wasn’t long before I had drifted off into sleep, lulled by the whispers and crackling of the flames and the heat wafting over my body.
My eyes snapped open as someone touched my shoulder lightly.
“There you are,” Ryukou said, taking a seat next to me in the grass. “I was wondering where you had been. Here.” He handed me a bowl of soup.
I yawned and sat up gingerly, taking the bowl. “Where were you?”
“Me? Ah… I was speaking with Father. He says that we’ll meet the Demali tomorrow, if the reports from the messengers were correct. But I’m not so sure. We should have run into them by now, taking into account that they started moving before we did. I may be wrong. Perhaps that’s why we still haven’t seen them.”
“Is it bad that we haven’t seen them yet?” I asked, lifting the bowl to my mouth to take a sip.
Ryukou shrugged. “It’s neither good nor bad; it just is. For all we know, they could have been delayed on the road, or have been camped out this whole time. We’ll meet them eventually.”
“And that’s bad?” I reaffirmed.
My older brother nodded. “Indeed.”
“But we knew that already.”
“Also true,” Ryukou said with a low chuckle.
“Where is Father now?” I said, looking around to spot him.
“He’s in his tent deliberating with General Oimé.”
“Why? What’s wrong”
“Nothing really,” Ryukou said. “They are simply discussing tactics.”
“Oh,” I muttered. “Then what do I do?
“You,” Ryukou said as he stood, “watch for now, and make sure you aren’t harmed.”
I stood and let out a small yelp as some of the soup trickled out of the bowl and onto my hand.
“Here is my advice to you: until we are back home, always stay near a person. You never know who, or what, lurks nearby, and whether their intent be amiable.”
“I know that. You forget, I’m not a child anymore, and I’ve seen my fair share of war.” I rolled my eyes. “Where are you going?” I asked as Ryukou began to walk away.
Without turning back, he called, “Good night, Izka!”
I grimaced, both at his nickname for me, the same one from when we were kids, and the stinging of my hand. I brought the knuckles up to my mouth to lick painfully at the burn. I had half a mind to follow him and demand more answers, but I was too exhausted. With a sigh, I sat down to finish my soup, wanting something more substantial.
As the soldiers began to drift off to sleep, I decided to retire to my tent.
The next day would be long and tedious.
I woke to the sound of frenzied activity outside my tent. I wondered why they made so much noise. Didn’t they know I was trying to sleep? While I lay on my bedroll still half-asleep, I heard footsteps running back and forth in front of the tent, saw the shadows of people passing by, and heard both voices raise and die down to a subtle hush again several times. For a moment, I only lay there listening to the clamour outside and staring up at the fabric of my tent, but soon, I became aware that something was terribly wrong.
Suddenly, I shot up from my blankets and blinked repeatedly to clear my head of the fogginess of sleep. Without any more than a second to assure myself that I was hearing things properly, I dressed and pushed open the tent flap, squinting in the morning light. Around me, the soldiers moved about in a furor, some of them not noticing my presence. What was going on?
I made my way around the busy men in search of answers to the chaos. I saw Ryukou and Father speaking to a pair of soldiers in hushed tones and crossed over to them. As I neared, I noticed that the two soldiers were quite disheveled, with cuts and bruises on their faces, blood caked on the side of their heads and matting their hair, and pieces from their armour missing. I paused a few feet away and caught the end of their conversation.
“... we saw.” One of the soldiers looked down at his muddy shoes, trembling.
“Are you sure?” pressed King Tammamori.
He nodded his head. “I would swear on my family name.”
My father put the tips of his fingers to his head, deep in thought, then said, “I see…”
After a moment, he laid a hand on the soldiers’ shoulders and bid them go find treatment for their injuries.
“What do you think?” Ryukou asked Father quietly, his expression mirroring Father’s.
“I think,” he said carefully, “that we need to be more cautious. I’m going to go speak with Oimé on the matter. Please organize the men so we can depart immediately.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Ryukou said with a quick bow. He watched as Father stalked away, preoccupied. Then his gaze fell on me—noticing my presence for the first time—and he smiled weakly.
“Oh, Izka, I didn’t see you there. How did you sleep?”
I ignored the question. “What’s going on?”
Ryukou’s face darkened. “The soldiers sent ahead of us as scouts spotted Demali riding down the main road a few nights ago. But before they were able to turn back to warn us, they were attacked from behind. That was near Humira, and it looked like the barbarians had pillaged the town. Our scouts just made it back to camp an hour ago with this information. Unfortunately, none of the other soldiers were able to spot where the Demali went after that.” He let out a sigh and shook his head.
I stared at him, wide-eyed. “Do you think they passed us?” I asked.
“No,” Ryukou said. “They couldn’t have, at least, not without alerting the entire camp. No. My guess is that they are hiding somewhere nearby. We’ll have to be careful not to fall into their sly trap. Be always on your guard; though they are uncivilized barbarians, they are masterful tacticians.”
I nodded. I knew better than to doubt my older brother’s words. Hardly was the Crown Prince wrong on such matters.
“Go and prepare yourself for departure. We leave at Father’s command.”
“Yes,” I said, running off to my tent. It took me only a few minutes to gather my things and secure them in the saddle bags. Waiting for the soldiers to leave, I impatiently fed Kiro large clumps of grass, petting the gelding’s snout, while the sounds of soldiers shouting and running errands back and forth kept me on edge.
Finally, when all the camp had been packed away, the soldiers stood at attention, waiting for the order to move out. All was quiet for a few minutes, with only the horses’ restless snorts and the idle murmuring of the men stirring the air. Then, Father mounted his horse in the middle of our formation, and we were off.
We rode with a new urgency, a tenseness that had been absent the day before now permeating our entire brigade like a bad smell. I felt unease settle in the pit of my stomach. After several hours riding in relative silence, I felt like I was going to go mad. Around midday, the sky grew dark, and large pelting drops of rain burst forth from the clouds, soaking us in seconds. Ryukou slowed his pace slightly so that his horse rode abreast of mine.
“I think we’re going to stop soon,” Ryukou said. “The horses are tired, and we’re not going to see anything in this downpour. Oh, the heavens must be cruel,” he grumbled.
“Where is Humira?” I asked, squinting up at the fat clouds that disgorged their load on our heads.
“About thirty miles eastward by the road, as the crow flies. We might have arrived by nightfall if not for the rain.” Suddenly, he looked ahead at Father and his guards. “This situation surely can’t get any worse than it already is.”
I didn’t respond, but shifted my gaze forward at the foggy, grey landscape that seemed to hold so many secrets.
I shivered as water dripped into my tunic and my hair stuck to the back of my neck and forehead. I ducked back under the shelter of the small stone outcropping and watched Ryukou speak to Father and Oimé, but I couldn’t hear anything of their conversation over the battering rain. I balled my hands into fists to prevent them from shaking.
As I watched the men’s deliberation, it occurred to me that Father seemed to value Ryukou’s advice just as much as I did. It puzzled me exceedingly at first; what could an experienced King possibly learn from his son, successor or not? But the more I thought about it, it made a great deal of sense. Ryukou had always been wise, as long as I could remember. He was born to be King, I decided.
I sat on the damp earth and looked down at the ground in front of my feet, seeing faces in the dirt, imagining the pebbles were eyes, the twigs mouths, and the grass tufts of hair. I stared at them for several minutes, but as soon as the faces started to look like they were glaring at me, I averted my eyes and began to adjust my sword sheath at my hip to distract myself.
Suddenly, I heard something zip through the air, like a dull whistle, followed by a groaning scream and a soft thud. My head snapped up to see what had happened.
On the ground a few feet away, Ryukou lay in the mud, a black-and-blue-fletched arrow protruding from his left shoulder. Surprise and fear shot through me like I was being dunked in a pool of icy water.
“Ryukou!” I shouted, scrambling to my feet and running toward my brother. I slipped haphazardly on the wet ground. “Ryukou!”
“Hurry! Draw your blades! The Crown Prince has been shot!”
The men shouted and cursed, drawing their weapons and searching for the attackers frantically in the haze. Father propped his helmet on his head and mounted his horse, taking control of the men and charging forward furiously.
I fell to my knees and touched Ryukou’s uninjured shoulder lightly. “Ryukou? Ryukou!” I called to him urgently. Ryukou, whose face was contorted in pain with his eyes squeezed shut, grunted deep in his chest a few times, unable to speak. I felt my throat constrict at the thought that he was dying.
“Your Highness, are you alright?” Oimé asked, sitting the Crown Prince up. His head rolled forward for a moment, obscuring his face with wet strands of black hair. Blood stained the front of his shirt, the arrow piercing through the leather pauldrons of his armour. It was a horrible wound, I could see that without his armour being stripped away.
Ryukou turned his head and spit a thick globule of blood in the grass. He lifted his head and said weakly, “I-I’m fine. I bit my tongue.” I exhaled in relief.
Oimé nodded in understanding. “Can you stand?”
“I think so,” Ryukou said, with a faint smile.
I thought the smile was in poor taste of the situation, but a wave of relief washed over me nonetheless.
“Help me lift him, please,” the General told me.
We each gripped under Ryukou’s arms and hoisted him up from the ground. Ryukou winced as my hand brushed his shoulder, and I frowned in sympathy. The three of us started to search for cover when I pointed out the outcropping.
Once we set Ryukou gently on the ground under the stone slabs sticking out of the dirt, Oimé began inspecting his wound. The man unfastened Ryukou’s armour and ripped the fabric of his shirt around the arrow. Now that the fabric was torn away, it was clear just how bad the puncture was. The arrow had pierced so deeply through Ryukou’s left trapezius that the iron head jutted out from the other side. Blood had pooled around the shaft, but fortunately, the bleeding stopped there.
“You’re quite lucky, all things considered. It didn’t hit anything vital,” Oimé said, but then he frowned. “Prepare yourself, Your Highness. This is going to hurt a bit.”
“Just get it over with.”
With a sigh, Oimé gripped the arrow shaft and glanced up at the Crown Prince hesitantly. Ryukou nodded his assent, gritting his teeth, and with a decisive tug, Oimé ripped the arrow out of his flesh. I looked away. My older brother exclaimed loudly, his muscles convulsing in pain, but it was already done. His eyes closed and he panted heavily.
“Please fetch the flask out of my pack,” Oimé said to me.
I nodded and began to dig in the General’s bag. When I found it, I tried to hand the metal container to the older man, but Oimé shook his head. He tore a long strip of damp fabric off the hem of his tunic and said, “Pour some of that on his wound.”
I nodded and twisted the cap off the flask, smelling strong, undiluted rice wine. I poured it over the wound, causing alcohol to mix with the dark blood and wash down Ryukou’s shoulder. Ryukou winced, and Oimé began to bind the wound with the torn cloth. It was loose and untidy, at best, but it served better than exposing the gash to the elements.
The General grunted in acceptance at his rugged handiwork, and stood up suddenly.
“You two stay here. I’ll go fetch our horses, so that we can join the rest of the men. Prince Izrekiel, please help him back into his armour.”
I nodded, still unable to slow the palpitations of my heart.
When the man left, I looked back at my brother in concern. “Are you okay?” I picked up Ryukou’s leather chestplate and slipped it on over his head.
Ryukou glanced down at his useless arm. “It’s bearable,” he said. “At least it’s my left arm, and I can still use my sword.”
I made a face, twisting my mouth thoughtfully. “Good that you’re not left-handed like me.” I began to tie the armour in place, looking down at my hands as I completed the knots to avoid his knowing gaze.
There was a pause before Ryukou spoke again. “I can try and teach you to fight with your right hand when we get home, if you wish.”
I shook my head and smiled weakly. “Jaraso already tried. He used to tie my left hand behind my back when we would spar, but it never worked. I simply couldn’t seem to control my right the same as my left. And Jaraso scolded me really harshly when I fell down and wasn’t able to catch myself.”
Ryukou laughed, no doubt imagining a visual image of the old swordmaster scowling down at me as I wriggled on the ground with my left hand bound behind my back. “I guess your left hand is just as stubborn as you are,” he said with a light-hearted smile.
“Maybe,” I admitted. “Our old writing tutor, Tarou—you remember him, right?—Well, he would hit my wrist with a cane every time I tried to use my left hand to write. Of course, that never worked either, because I would just refuse to learn my letters. This went on for three months before Mother convinced Father to stop such disciplines. So I guess my left hand’s stubbornness won in the end.” I paused and thought about it for a second. “I’m honestly just glad that they never tried to correct my left-handed eating habits. Gods forbid I ever attempt to hold chopsticks with my right hand.” I shuddered in mock horror.
I was rewarded by Ryukou’s amused laugh again. That was all I wanted—to hear him laugh—since I knew he was in pain. At least if he was laughing, I knew that it was bearable.
Just as I let out a sigh of relief, Oimé arrived with the horses. “Come, Your Highnesses. We haven’t time to lose.”