The shouted commands and clanging of swords from the soldiers in training could be heard from the stables, where Ash Steelskin, only a baby at the time and wrapped in an old shirt, was being laid down in the hay. Her mother, whose whereabouts is still unknown, crouched by her baby for a while, before finally leaving a note next to Ash and walking away, leaving her life forever.
Night had fallen by the time two soldiers on patrol wandered into the stables and found Ash lying there, freezing and clinging onto her mother’s note. They may have discovered the baby earlier had it been crying, but despite the cold air and abandonment, the baby had not made a sound. It seemed even from an early age Ash had a talent for hiding her emotions. The young soldier, Kawan Edorth, picked up the note. It was addressed to Bastian Steelskin. The soldier read:
I wonder if you remember me, our night together in Blaudrift was so long ago, but I believe you will. You seemed different to the other men that came to us, I think you may be the most genuine man I’ve ever met, but considering the company I keep, that task is not much of a hardship.
I thought of writing to you when I found out I was with child, but, foolishly, I thought I could handle it on my own. I was confident everything would be alright when six months had gone by and I had yet to show any signs of a bump, but that seems to be the only luck I’ve had since our night. I lost my work, and once the baby was born, I soon lost all of my money.
I don’t deserve this life, I didn’t choose it and I certainly didn’t ask for it. I’ve decided to give myself a chance for a better life. If fate has it that I will starve and die lost somewhere trying to find this so-called better life, so be it, but I have to know.
I’m leaving the baby in your care. Do not worry, she is well behaved and I’m sure you’ll be a better father to her than I could have ever been as her mother. Take care of her, and of yourself. I’m sorry.
P.S. Her name is Ashley.
The soldier let the note drop to his side once he had finished reading. He looked to his companion for advice but none was offered. They were at a loss as to what to do, for it had not yet been a week since the death of Bastian Steelskin.
Eighteen years later
Ash stood at the top of the hill, looking down at the soldier’s camp she had left only two years previous. On the day she packed, Ash was certain she would never return here, yet here she was, about to enter the place where she grew up. That was all it was to her, an upbringing. She would never call it home, not because she had bad memories or feelings towards it, but because it simply didn’t feel like home. Nowhere had.
The young soldier, Kawan, who had found Ash in the stables all those years ago, had convinced the captain to leave the baby in his car. Kawan came from a large family, but when his father sent him away to become a soldier, Kawan missed his younger siblings. Although he would never admit it, Ash helped take away his feeling of being homesick.
Ash has very fond feelings towards Kawan, she was very grateful to him and would always be glad of how he raised her. She knew that had anyone else but Kawan taken her in, they may have wanted to teach her how to sew instead of fight. When Ash started to show a talent for yielding weapons any other guardian may have ordered her to stop, but Kawan encouraged her to practice and discover how much talent she possessed. If Kawan had not taken Ash in, she would be a very different person indeed, but because he did, she became the greatest swordsman and fighter of her age.
Throwing away the remains of the apple that she had been eating, Ash made her way down the hill and into camp. As she walked past the rows of tents where soldiers mulled about, Ash was not unaware of the eyes that followed her, and took pleasure in the few mouths that dropped open. She couldn’t blame their shocked reactions, Ash left camp a skinny girl with wispy brown hair that always gave her a messy appearance. She had little possessions and wore her father’s shirt that she was found in. In the last two years Ash had used her fighting skills to earn quite a bit of gold and she had spent her first few payments on her attire and appearance (and on a shiny new sword of course, which she named Oroesi), so that she now walked with her head held high, her hair tied up in a tight ponytail with a decorative purple band holding it in place, and still wearing her father’s shirt although she had made improvements to it; gleaming gold buttons and gold embroidery on the ends of the sleeves. With her black boots and jacket, Ash was the best dressed soldier in the country.
She strode through the camp right up to the captain’s tent. When she entered he was leaning over a map on a table, discussing strategies with none other than Kawan Edorth. Unlike Ash, the two men hadn’t changed at all in the last two years. Captain Cadmond, a short but wide built man, was scratching his bushy grey and white beard. In contrast to the captain Kawan was very tall, and slightly slimmer, although still owning a big frame. His red hair still flopped to the left on his head, and his short neat beard was the only sign Kawan showed of aging, with specks of grey in the ginger hair. Kawan could never look intimidating to Ash, although he had tried, because his face was too friendly. He had crinkles around the eyes even when his face was serious, as it was at that moment, from too much laughter over the years.
“I hear you need the help of a little girl to fight your battles for you,” Ash mocked, announcing her presence.
Kawan froze except for his head which he slowly turned to Ash. Then a big smile spread on his face and he stormed over to her, engulfing her into a bear hug.
“I missed you too,” Ash said, hitting his arm to make him drop her.
“Look at you! I can’t believe it, why didn’t you write to say you were coming?” Kawan seemed to have something stuck in his eye and he turned away from Ash to wipe it.
“Well I didn’t want to miss the chance to make you cry. I see you’re still as soppy as ever, no wonder you need my help.”
Kawan punched Ash’s arm in response, to which she grinned before pouncing. Their brawling was interrupted by the captain.
“When you two are done, there’s a battle about to happen that we seem unlikely to win.”
With one last push at each other Ash and Kawan joined Captain Cadmond. She picked up one of the rocks from the table and idly played with it until the captain snatched it off her, “that is our front line,” he said putting it back in place.
“So this is your army?” Ash pointed to the group of twelve rocks laid on the map, “And that is theirs?” She pointed to the three smaller rocks positioned at the other side of the map.
The two nodded solemnly. Ash was staring at them, waiting for the punchline. “Are you idiots telling me that you begged me to come back for this? You’ve dragged me back here when your soldiers could win this blindfolded!”
Kawan’s hurt expression didn’t go unnoticed to Ash but she was too angry to feel guilty. She had come all this way, declining a better offer, thinking they were in danger.
“They may be a small army, but they’ve made it that far from Nestwinch. We’ve lost three of our northern forces, two thousand men dead.” Cadmond was gripping the table so hard his knuckles had turned white.
“Okay, but how many have they lost? I mean look, they’ve hardly got an army left.”
“We had a report after the first battle, a soldier who had fled when he saw victory was impossible,” Kawan went to the cabinet and took out the letter, handing it to Ash, “he was clearly crazed from the battle but if we believe what he says about their numbers, they haven’t seem to have lost any men.”
Ash scanned the letter:
Be warned; they are coming. They arrived before dawn, their fire lighting up the skies. Three hundred compared to our thousand and they wiped out half of us within the hour. They are demons, they cannot be killed. I have no advice to give but to run. Pray they never find you.
“How are they doing it?”
Cadmond sighed, “We have no idea.”
Ash was extremely thankful when Kawan suggested they get an early night. All evening he had bombarded her with questions; Where was she staying? Was she eating enough? How come she was always too busy to write and let him know she was okay? Did she really hate this place so much she needed to leave as soon as she could? Was he a good brother to her? The questions got a lot harder to answer but Ash tried as best as she could to answer in a way that didn’t upset him. Finally he announced it was bedtime and she was allowed a few hours peace. She cared about Kawan, of course, but after a falling out with his father she was the only ‘family’ he was still in contact with and his love could be overwhelming at times. Ash didn’t know how to return that sort of emotion, she had learned from a young age to not get attached to people.
When Ash woke up she could smell breakfast outside the tent and smiled. She found Kawan at the fire not far from the tent and when she walked over he offered her a cheese and mushroom omelette.
“Where did you get the ingredients?”
“I picked the mushrooms from a nearby field, and the chickens were kind enough to lay some eggs.” Kawan threw some mushrooms into his pan.
“And the cheese?”
Kawan smiled a mischievous smile, “that I cannot say, but if it’s not to your taste I can eat it for you.” He moved to grab the plate but Ash exclaimed in protest and shielded her food with her body, and got to eating it quickly.
“Mmm, your cooking tastes better than I remember,” she mumbled through a full mouth.
“You’re always welcome to visit for dinner.”
Ash swallowed, waiting for more reprimands about leaving and barely keeping in contact, but he said no more. They ate the rest of breakfast in comfortable silence, and didn’t speak until they’d both finished.
“So, are your sword skills as good as they used to be, little one?” Kawan teased.
“Oh please,” she scoffed, “you wouldn’t stand a chance against me now.”
“Is that so?” Kawan’s eyes twinkled and then he grabbed and unsheathed the sword he had lying on the grass. Ash had only a second to react as he lunged for her; she spun away and grabbed the dagger in her boot. She just managed to block the sword’s blade from piercing her shoulder and instead navigating it to the grass.
“What the hell, Kawan? You could have injured me before the battle!” She stormed back into the tent with Kawan’s bellowing laughter following her. “Idiot,” she mumbled but there was a hint of a smile on Ash’s face.
The soldiers were ready, their weapons gleaming in the sun as they stood in rows, ready to face their enemy, whoever they may be. They had walked for several hours and arrived with enough time to set up a temporary camp and for all the soldiers to regain their strength before the fighting began. Ash had always admired the captain for his leadership. She had been sneaking into their battles since she was thirteen, already better at brandishing a sword than some of the men. She didn’t fight of course, if Kawan had found out she’d followed them he would have never let her carry on with her training with the soldiers, so she kept back and watched from a tree or somewhere equally as hidden. Sometimes she would sneak close enough to the war tent to hear the captain’s orders and commands. When it was time to push, retreat, flank them on the right, whatever orders he gave, it always worked. Which is why she knew the situation must be dire when she received his letter, if he was unsure as to how to proceed.
Ash stood side by side with Kawan, armour on and their swords in hand.
“I’m glad you’ve been improving your fighting skills Ash, we’ll need them, but I wonder if you’re still as stealthy as you used to be when you would sneak into the captain’s food supply.”
“You knew about that?” Ash remembered the first time she brought back some extra goods from one of her walks, surprised when Kawan believed that she had foraged all the food.
“It wasn’t hard to put two and two together when the captain complained of missing supplies,” he chuckled.
“You never stopped me,” she pointed out.
“It tasted too good.” He winked and then his face turned serious again. “So tell me, is that a skill you’ve also upheld?”
Ash gave him a quizzical look.
“Just in case things aren’t…going our way.”
“I’m surprised you’d trust me with that kind of task.”
Kawan looked at her suddenly, “Why?”
Ash shrugged, “you always wanted to keep me near the back when I was finally allowed to fight.”
“It was for your safety.” Kawan was still looking at Ash but she kept her head forward.
“So what, since I left you don’t care about my safety anymore?” Ash teased.
“No…I just realised trying to protect you only resulted in pushing you away. I- I don’t want to do that anymore.” Kawan took a deep breath and continued, “I know you have a new life now, but if you did ever want to come back…that would be okay. I’d try and do better.”
Ash didn’t know what to say, she felt a strange lump in her throat and found herself swallowing a couple of times before managing to answer, “you wouldn’t want me back, I’d annoy you too much.”
Kawan turned his head away, “Well, the offer’s there if you change your mind.”
Ash nodded not looking at him.
At that moment the returning scout could be spotted riding towards them. Kawan shouted to the soldiers to stand guard and they walked forwards to meet the scout.
What did you see?” Kawan inquired when they were close enough.
The scout pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. “There’s around three hundred of them. They walk slowly, they’ll be a few hours yet, nearer nightfall.”
Kawan nodded, “It gives us time to prepare. Well done.”
“There’s one more thing. They…well…”
“Spit it out boy!”
“They have no weapons or armour.”
Kawan was at a loss of words then.
The scout nodded, “they were wearing black hooded cloaks, hiding their faces, and they carried very little. Nowhere to hide any weapons.”
Without saying a word Kawan turned and headed for the captain’s tent.
“Uhh…join your fellow soldiers, that’s an order.”
“Yes sir, I mean ma’am.”
Ash smiled at her unquestioned authority and then ran to join Kawan. He didn’t speak until they reached Captain Cadmond.
“Three hundred of them.”
Cadmond nodded, “As we expected.”
Cadmond looked up from his map, “no weapons?”
The two men stared at each other, mouths open slightly but neither spoke.
“Without weapons, how are they going to fight?” Ash picked up a discarded candle from another table, “The soldier who sent the letter, he mentioned fire…”
“The scout didn’t mention torches or anything of that kind.”
“He was looking for weapons, perhaps he didn’t think it was important.”
Cadmond scratched his beard and said, “how long until they reach us?”
“If they continue their pace, not until evening.”
Cadmond nodded, “alright, gather a group of men to collect as much water as they can. Get a trench dug nearer the front lines which can be filled so we have a closer supply. If they have fire, we’ll have the means to stop it.”
The soldiers worked for hours, gathering water. They had only brought a few buckets to fill with water for drinking and cleaning wounds, so they had to make endless trips back and forth from the stream down the hill. The time Cadmond had secured to relax and regain their strength was replaced with rushing around, wetting the ground and making sure each soldier had filled their flask with water. By the time nightfell and the scout announced the enemies arrival would be minutes away, the soldiers had barely finished their task and reordered themselves in lines, ready for battle.
Cadmond could be seen on his horse to the west, shouting commands to his soldiers. Kawan was in charge of the unit Ash stood in. She was a few rows back from the front but she could see Kawan clearly. He was striding up and down and then he stopped and turned to face his men.
“You’ve all worked extremely hard today, but it is not yet time to relax. Do not let your guard down, no matter what number their army is. Keep focused, keep fighting, and we will succeed.” Kawan started pacing again, eyeing each soldier as he continued, “They have taken down three of our neighbouring forces, do not forget that, they are not to be underestimated. That being said, do not be discouraged; we have used the information we’ve obtained to our advantage and we are more ready than those who fought before us. We will succeed if we stay strong, and we work together! We will show the enemy that looking for a fight with us was a mistake. We will show them that we are strong, that we stand together and then we shall succeed!”
The replying shouts from the men made the hairs on the back of Ash’s neck rise and she too joined in with their war cries. Not every army she had fought with did this, but she found it exhilarating. As they shouted into the night sky, the night sky gave its reply. Burst of flames lit up the sky and then it was dark once more. Every few seconds more bursts of flames appeared and it was then that Ash could make out the figures in the distance, walking forwards, igniting the sky every few steps. What they were using to cause the fire could not be seen, but if they wanted to waste their supplies that was fine by Ash. Although she had to admit, each time the flames revealed the cloaked figures, showing their progression towards them each time, was very effective. She could tell some the soldiers were intimated as they had fallen silent.
When the figures were close enough to be seen even without the flames lighting up the sky, they stopped. The soldiers twitched, some looking to each other in confusion. Ash could tell they were taken aback by their lack of weapons. The scout had been right, they didn’t seem to be carrying anything, no tools or equipment of any kind…so how did they make the fire?
The group of hooded figures looked so insignificant compared to the army that they faced, yet they were giving off a sense of calm confidence. Every pair of eyes were on them, waiting, although they didn’t know what for. Then, all at once, the figures lifted their hands and removed their hoods. Ash scanned each and every one, making sure she wasn’t mistaken. They were all women.
One of the soldiers near Ash let out a bark of laughter but Kawan shot him a warning look and he silenced himself. The sound of horse hooves could be heard as Cadmond rode over and settled his horse in front of the group of women. Staying mounted he addressed them, “I’m afraid you’ve caused quite a bit of trouble in these lands, I must ask that you turn around and leave in peace. We do not wish to fight you.”
The women remained silent, facing forwards with the same neutral expression on their face that was starting to become unnerving. Each of the women’s faces had intricate lines of paint over the eyebrows and joining down their nose, giving them a pointed harsh look. Ash figured this was another tactic of intimidation and another successful one in her opinion.
A figure from the back moved and walked down the middle until she stood directly below Cadmond. Ash couldn’t see past Cadmond’s horse but she heard the eerily calm voice of the woman.
“I’m afraid I cannot permit that, we’ve been walking for miles and these ladies are hungry. What sort of leader would I be if I denied them their feast?”
With that Cadmond’s horse moved slightly to the right so Ash had a clear view of the leader. She was smirking and her black eyes shone in delight. Ash felt Kawan’s eyes on her and felt the goosebumps rise on her arms. Apart from the black eyes and jet black hair, the woman was the spitting image of Ash, or how Ash would probably look when she was older.
Then the woman laughed, a cold harsh laugh and she lifted her arms. Before Ash could register what she was doing, fire shot from the woman’s hands and Cadmond and his horse were engulfed in flames. With a roar from Kawan the soldiers around Ash rushed forward to attack, but she was still stunned. She watched as the other woman lifted their hands and sent out more flames to the soldiers. The row of soldiers holding the buckets of water ran forward and threw them at the women. It made no difference, the women laughed and then raised their arms again, sending out new flashes of red. Finally Ash managed to shake herself and she ran forward. Kawan was bent over Cadmond who had fallen from his horse and she sprinted for them. She placed her hand on Kawan’s shoulder and when he moved his head Ash saw Captain Cadmond, burned and dead on the ground.
Kawan and Ash held each other’s arms for a second and then turned, lifting their swords as they went. They were several rows back now with soldiers running past heading for their death. Any soldier that managed to survive the flames and get close enough to wield his sword would soon discover the blade had melted in the heat of the fire, and within seconds perish himself.
“Use your shields” Kawan shouted to the soldiers as Ash rolled out of the way of the fire.
Ash watched as one of the women aimed for Kawan. He held his shield to protect his face and as he walked forwards the woman thrust out her hands, focusing all her fire on him. The flames hit the shield but still Kawan moved forwards, getting closer and closer. The metal on the front of his shield was bubbling and melting away but Kawan surged forwards. He lifted his sword ready and Ash thought he was going to make it when with a scream of frustration he dropped his shield and the flames ran up his arm. The woman laughed and moved her focus on to someone else.
“Kawan!” Ash ran to his side and pulled him back to safety. She smacked at the flames until his left arm was no longer on fire, but then realised his armour had melted onto his skin. He was grunting in pain, the sweat on his forehead dripping.
“It’s okay, I’ve got you.” Ash shouted at another soldier to help her and together they retreated, holding Kawan up between them who was dipping in and out of consciousness. They carried him back to the war tent and called for a medic.
“What do we do? Do we surrender?” The soldier was clearly panicked and not doing a good job of hiding it.
Ash turned to Kawan whose skin was ghostly pale now and he had a sheen of sweat on him, but he had stopped groaning in pain once they’d settled him down in the tent.
“Wait outside for order, we need to discuss it.”
The soldier bowed and left them. When the medic continued his work Kawan dismissed him also.
“We can’t win here, if we fight we all die, if we surrender, they’ll keep working their way through the country killing others.” Ash prided herself on remaining calm in difficult situations, but she wasn’t sure she would be able to as the panic rose in her chest.
“Ashley,” he hadn’t called her that since he sat her down when she was five to tell her of where she came from and who her father was, or had been, “listen to me.”
She crouched down next to him, taking the wet cloth the medic had left behind and wiping the sweat from his forehead.
“Did you see their leader?”
“You noticed the resemblance?”
Ash forced a laugh, “What? You thought she looked a little like me too? It was barely a resemblance, she was obviously just blessed with good looks as well.” She forced another short laugh but it came out quite strangled.
“Ash, that woman is your mother.”
Ash shook her head, “No one knew who my mother was.”
“I recognise her. From my first night out as a new recruit. We went to the local pub in Blaudrift for the captain’s birthday. I remember her now, she was standing outside trying to entice the men to enter the…establishment where she worked. A few of the men snuck off later but your father stayed with me and a few others, I didn’t think he went but…he must have.”
Ash was still shaking her head.
“I’m telling you, that’s your mother.”
“You’re wrong.” It was as if Ash’s legs were moving for her as she realised she’d retreated to the tent’s exit.
“Ash…” Kawan tried to move but it was too much and he let his head fall back.
“You’re wrong,” is all she said again before she turned and ran out the tent and back towards the battlefield.
She could see the drastic fall in their numbers immediately when she returned to the fighting. The screaming of men and smell of burning flesh was enough to make Ash gag, but she forced herself to keep going and not to turn back. When she reached the front unit she started zig zagging her way around them, keeping low and far enough back from the fight that she was safe, but close enough that she could catch glimpses of the fire-wielders face. As she searched she noticed the gleeful expressions on the women’s faces as they burnt the men to a crisp. Their power seemed endless. Ash kept running in and out of bodies and of running men, until at last she saw her. Her look-alike was almost dancing as she turned and twisted, sending bursts of flames to each man that ran towards her. It was horrifying and beautiful all at the same time.
Ash stood up straight and took a deep breath. Then she walked forwards. When she neared the woman turned her hands towards Ash and her face lit up as a ball of fire appeared in her hands, but then she stopped and the flames disappeared. The woman was staring at Ash, and soon Ash was only a few feet away from the woman.
One of the other women noticed the leader’s hesitation and shouted to her, “Kat? What’s the matter?”
“Hello, mother.” Ash sounded a lot more confident than she felt, which she was entirely grateful for, “Can we talk?”