The Girl with No Name
by EC

Part 8

Chapter Twenty-Four – The Surgeon's Wife

Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

A heavy snowstorm swept over the central mountains on November 15, putting an end to travel, foraging, military drills, and just about anything else that involved extended activity outside. The Defenders congregated in the bathhouse and the kitchen, the only two buildings that were adequately heated. Isauria and Danka spent much of their free time sitting on their bed, wrapped in blankets while Isauria practiced writing or doing arithmetic problems. There were not many books in the encampment, but some of the Defenders had brought a few with them, which Danka borrowed for Isauria to read. Several of Oana’s Nymphs were illiterate, so, if Isauria’s book had an interesting topic, for entertainment they gathered in the frigid bunkhouse, huddling under their blankets while listening to the girl practice reading out loud.

Unable to do much else in the snowy hills during the winter, the snowbound Defenders spent a lot of their time making, repairing, and modifying weapons. Oana gave Danka several suggestions for improving Isauria’s crossbow. The blacksmith enjoyed experimenting with weapons, including projectiles, to see if he could improve on their performance. So, Oana frequently sent her Nymphs outside to test modified crossbow bolts, to see if any of the new designs might be worth distributing to the entire militia.

* * *

During the second half of 1756, the Defenders of the Duchy did not really have a supreme chief, nor were they under the direct control of the Grand Duke’s army. Leadership among officers such as Commander Sáupeckt depended on having respect from their soldiers and building prestige through their units’ over-all contributions to the militia movement. The most obvious way the build prestige was with battlefield victories, but there were other ways commanders could make meaningful contributions, including bringing in supplies, identifying new resources such hidden springs or new fishing ponds, improving travel and communication, producing and or finding innovative ways to repair weapons, and improving medical care. Commander Sáupeckt’s unit was considered a top provider of medical care, give that he had three field surgeons and an alchemist working in the cave, led by a practitioner who had previous experience working with the Followers of the Ancients.

The leading doctor’s name was Ilmátarkt. He originally was from Nagorónkti-Serífkti and had assisted a group of Followers during vaccination campaigns in 1749 and 1751. He was the son of a bookbinder who provided housing to the Followers in exchange for medical training for his children. Because he was the only member of the Defenders who had received formal medical training from the Cult, he was considered the person most qualified to handle medical care for the militia.

Danka first met Ilmátarkt when she helped bring in her wounded squad-mate for a follow-up examination and to have the wound disinfected. Ilmátarkt was impressed with Danka’s work and amazed that a Nymph who had sustained such a serious injury in battle had survived and was well on her way to healing. He congratulated Danka and wanted to find out more about her, but the September fighting and October foraging pulled her away.

After the first snowfall, Danka was back in the cave, asking about alchemy ingredients she needed to prepare batches of birth-control paste. Doctor Ilmátarkt, pleased that she had survived the fall campaign unscathed, invited her to share a bottle of ale in a small side grotto he used as his place of work.

They chatted about Nagorónkti-Serífkti, the vaccination campaigns, and the True Believers. Because of his training and association with the Cult of the Ancients, Ilmátarkt suspected that his life was in danger when he heard about the raid against the Followers’ compound in 1752. He fled with his two sisters to Starívktaki Móskt. The sisters went their separate ways: one enrolled in the Old Believers’ Seminary and the other married a blacksmith’s apprentice.

Ilmátarkt could have remained in Starívktaki Móskt, but with his sisters occupied with their new lives and responsibilities he became lonely and restless. He went to the capital, set broken bones and performed some surgeries to earn money for traveling, and continued south to Hórkustk Ris. Although by that time Hórkustk Ris had become a besieged border town, he liked the city and made friends with some of the city guards. When the Grand Duke evacuated the city, he accompanied the guards to assist refugees who needed medical assistance, and in doing so unwittingly joined the Grand Duke’s army. Because his unit remained with the refugees, he missed seeing the battles for the city and the Grand Duke’s victory.

After the battle of Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt, Ilmátarkt’s unit quickly moved east to attack villages of foreigners still living in Hórkustk Ris province. He came close to being killed when his company lost a skirmish with a much larger column of retreating soldiers from the Lord of the Red Moon’s army and the squad he was with became separated from the rest of the unit and was overrun. Ilmátarkt was captured along with one of the guards while the others were killed. The Red Moon soldiers planned to impale their two prisoners, along with a group of captured village women, as a parting insult to the Grand Duke’s army. The invaders had even laid the hooks on the ground in front of the captives to show them what was about to happen. However, because the Red Moon Army commander was absent, the impalement had to wait.

Fortunately for the prisoners, a group of Defenders of the Duchy operating in the area were able to take advantage of the delay to organize a rescue. The Danubians entered the village at night, battled the Red Moon soldiers guarding Ilmátarkt and the others, and escaped with the prisoners. The Defenders lost two of their own men, so they even though they had saved their countrymen, they were not sympathetic towards them. They took the women to Hórkustk Ris province and abandoned them in a large village held by the Grand Duke’s army. The Defenders drafted the two rescued men to replace the two killed in the fight. Ilmátarkt had been with the Defenders ever since, although his original senior officer traded him to Commander Sáupeckt for a man who knew how to make gunpowder.

Danka responded with a heavily censored summary of her life, omitting the reason she left Rika Héckt-nemát and her two years serving the Grand Duke as a concubine. She did feel confident enough around the doctor that she talked about her time with Babáckt Yaga. The pair exchanged information and gossip about people they had both known in Nagorónkti-Serífkti and Starívktaki Móskt. When she mentioned Ermin, she found out that Ilmátarkt had worked under him multiple times. At the time the doctor knew him Ermin’s wife was still alive and she was friends with both Ilmátarkt’s sisters.

The conversation turned to the destruction of Babáckt Yaga’s settlement and the True Believers’ effort to consolidate their power in Nagorónkti-Serífkti. Danka described what happened and the sacrifice Ermin made so she could escape and warn Alchemist Fítoreckt in Sevérckt nad Gorádki. The memories of the chaotic fighting and Ermin’s last words came back into her consciousness, as though they had just happened. Unable to continue, Danka sat quietly as tears rolled down her cheeks.

“A lot of me died with Elder Ermin. I guess I loved him… in a way I never loved anyone else, but I never had the chance say anything to him about that. It seems such a long time ago… and yet, it wasn’t.”

There was a moment of silence, before Ilmátarkt slightly changed the subject. “So… since you were there and bore witness… it's true… the rumors… that the Cult of the Ancients disbanded?”

She saw no harm in giving the doctor a detailed account of the Cult’s final ceremony and the sealing of the caves. She was reluctant to tell Ilmátarkt about Alchemist Fítoreckt’s revenge against the True Believers’ priest, although she did mention that she had heard the priest later went mad and the townsfolk of Nagorónkti-Serífkti killed him. After the caves were sealed, the Followers dispersed and vanished into Danubian society. She concluded with, “So, it is true, the Cult did disband… and now I think I know why. Our leaders knew the Ancients had decided to forsake the Realm of the Living. The Ancients departed, and now the Destroyer rules our Realm. Alchemist Fítoreckt understood… Maybe the Ancients warned him they were leaving. Anyhow, the Cult is gone. I was there for the end. As they say: ‘What happens to a breath, after the words that it carried have been spoken?’”

An awkward moment of silence followed. After some thought, Ilmátarkt responded, “If the words were important enough, people will remember them. If the words are immortal, then the breath’s Path in Life is immortal. You can’t have the words without the breath. So there’s your answer. The breath is indeed gone, but the words of the Cult will remain, as will its accomplishments. You, sitting there in front of me, with your knowledge and memories, are one of those accomplishments, Follower Danka.”

“Follower. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I miss being called ‘Follower’. It was the only time I ever felt my Path in Life had any purpose to it. I was part of something, something very ancient and so much greater than myself. I went in as little more than an ignorant peasant girl, but when I put on my Followers’ dress, people looked at me with respect and awe.”

“Well, here, among the Defenders, your life will have a purpose. And when we go south, and you’re riding your horse with a squad of armed Nymphs, the women of the Kingdom of the Moon will look at you with respect and awe. Remember, the Kingdom’s women don’t fight. They don’t do anything other than serve their men. So when they see the infamous Danubian Nymphs… women carrying weapons… it makes them wonder about their own Paths in Life. And as far as being part of something much greater than yourself, among us, you will be. We’re defending the Duchy. You, a mere woman, have taken up arms and are defending the Duchy. You can’t be part of anything more important than that.”

“I know… but it’s not the same for me… as my service to the Realm of the Living when I was in the Cult.”

“Of course it’s not the same. When is anything the same? But are you telling me a Nymph’s skirt is any less honorable than a Follower’s dress? Different, yes. Less honorable, no.”

Danka knew that it would be getting dark shortly, and that she needed to get back to her squad. As much as she wanted to continue her conversation with the doctor, she had to cut it short. Instead, she asked about various ingredients, his chemistry supplies, and if there was anything in particular he needed when she was out foraging. He smiled and responded, “Ha! Here you are, claiming that you need to get back to Oana, and you’re asking about topics that will take us all winter to cover. There’s always tomorrow: the snow and the cave are not going anywhere.”

“You want me to come back? Just to talk?”

“I’d be honored.”

* * *

Danka returned the next day with Isauria. The doctor seemed disappointed that she had not returned alone. However, he welcomed the apprentice and introduced her to the fundamentals of alchemy. He then disposed of her by assigning one of his assistants to talk to her about medical procedures and to visit several patients recovering from injuries and sicknesses.

As soon as Isauria was gone, he talked to Danka at length concerning her experience as a chemist and field surgeon. They compared their training in the Cult and impressed each other with their knowledge. As the conversation progressed, it became clear to him that Danka had participated in the Grand Duke’s campaign in 1754, even though she was trying to give him the impression she was studying at the university in Sebérnekt Ris at the time. The doctor did not press her on the discrepancy in her narrative.

Throughout December, Danka was spent most of her time with Ilmátarkt. They worked in his laboratory preparing medicine, teaching each other details about alchemy and improving each other’s skills. He showed her some experimental glassware he had ordered from a local glassblower, while she shared the inventions she had seen at the Followers’ settlement, the most important of which was the iron stoves for burning cave-charcoal. They chatted about other topics, such as politics, the Kingdom of the Moon, and religion. Danka shared much of what she had learned from Babáckt Yaga and from her time at the university with a man who was genuinely interested in what she had to say.

At first Danka tried bringing Isauria into the cave to learn about medicine, but the girl felt more comfortable hanging out with other apprentices or practicing her crossbow with Oana’s squad-members. They continued to sleep together for warmth in the Nymphs’ frigid cabin, so everyone still looked upon Isauria as being Danka’s apprentice. However, during the day Danka and Isauria usually went their separate ways as the girl increasingly spent her routine away from her former owner. Danka was not bothered in the least by Isauria’s growing independence. She still viewed herself as cursed, so the sooner Isauria’s Path in Life moved away from hers, the better it would be for both.

Meanwhile, Danka spent as much time as possible with Ilmátarkt and his assistants. They prepared medications, exchanged various experiences as medical practitioners, and tested modifications of recipes to see if they could be improved or if the preparation could become more efficient. Danka shared Babáckt Yaga’s discovery about the rat plague and the poisonous fleas, to which the doctor responded, “That is a mystery we’ll have to investigate. It seems, from what you’re telling me, that not all the fleas are poisonous, just some. It seems they become poisonous for a mysterious reason, that they are not that way naturally. Something makes them poisonous, and only occasionally. What would that be?”

“Wouldn’t it just be a trick of the Destroyer?”

“No. It's something else, something from the Realm of Nature. We need to find out what change or event can make fleas become poisonous.”

“How would we do that?”

“We’ll have to look at the fleas themselves, and I know for a fact it can be done. If magnifying lenses are lined up in a certain way, it is possible to see very small things, strange moving things, everywhere. Especially in water. If we can find the right combination of lenses, we could study the fleas.”

Ilmátarkt showed Danka a strange contraption he had been working on, which allowed the user to see items such as pollen and dead insects in amazing detail. When the doctor showed her a couple of dead fleas under the lenses, she was horrified by how ugly and scary-looking they were. She commented that something so monstrous could only have been a product of the Destroyer. The doctor gave her a skeptical smile:

“Perhaps. But, ugly or not, the fleas contain a mystery we need to solve.”

* * *

Oana was increasingly irritated that Danka was gone most of the time, but she was not about to confront Ilmátarkt concerning her squad-member’s absence. Instead, she confronted Danka over the fact that she had left Isauria’s training to the rest of the squad. Danka, still annoyed that Oana had denied her any chance of recovering a portion of the three-and-a-half gold she had paid for her former servant, responded, “We agreed I have no claim over Apprentice Isauria’s life. That’s in her emancipation certificate, of which you have a copy with my original signature. As you’ll remember, you ordered me to kneel before the Priest with 35 silver pieces, half of which I had to give back to you, and swear I had no rights over her. So, she’s not really my problem, is she? You’re the squad leader and you need to train her. I now have other duties with the medical staff.”

Oana was offended that one of her subordinates would dare speak to her in such a manner, but she could not fault the newcomer for helping the militia’s doctor, and everything Danka had said about Isauria’s emancipation was true. In her haste to cancel Danka’s ownership over Isauria, Oana had ensured that any further relationship between them would be voluntary. However, she had not expected Danka to take on responsibilities outside the squad that would allow her to leave Isauria behind.

Danka’s insubordination was only one issue out of several irritating the squad leader. By the beginning of the new year, morale in the squad had deteriorated because the Nymphs were bored. Some of her squad members had obtained ale from the men and were drinking too much of it, some were neglecting their training, and some were gossiping and trying to discredit each other. Worst of all for Oana’s reputation as a leader, she discovered that four of her Nymphs were abusing their new sexual freedom by charging their male lovers a silver piece for each encounter: to put it simply, they had become prostitutes.

Oana was so livid when she discovered the prostitution that she wanted to whip everyone in her squad. She ordered all of her Nymphs, including Isauria, to strip inside the cabin, place their clothing in a pile, and stand by their bunks. However, as she brandished her switch, she decided that whipping the entire squad would be impractical and would further jeopardize her leadership. Instead she snapped:

“I’ll do all of you a favor. Since you want silver so badly, why don’t I make it easier? After-all, your customers have the right to see what they’re purchasing. That’s only fair! So… I’m changing your uniforms, to allow you to properly show your fine wares in the marketplace to your buyers.”

The squad leader angrily dug through the clothing pile and confiscated all of the trousers. Until further notice, the Nymphs would be naked between the tops of their boots and their waists so they could “properly display themselves to their clients”. She made an exception for Isauria who, because of her young age, did not share any responsibility for the scandal. The unhappy squad members retrieved their remaining clothing while Isauria stood next to Oana. As she watched the humiliation of her squad-mates, the apprentice had a smug expression on her face: the first time Danka had ever seen her like that.

The squad leader was not finished dishonoring her subordinates, because she had reserved a special humiliation for the four perpetrators of the prostitution scandal. She ordered them to assume “the prisoner’s stance”; standing with their legs spread and their hands behind their heads. She announced that she needed to check the condition of the “goods for sale” and make sure her squad was offering “only the very best for our loyal and hardworking men”. She ran her fingers though each culprit’s pubic hair before exploring her vulva with sensuous fondling. She shoved her fingers into the offenders’ vaginas and teased their clitorises.

“So tell me, do you become aroused when a man touches you for silver, or do you prefer to just act and pretend? Remember, ‘the Destroyer enters the Realm of the Living through the mouth of the liar’, or I guess in your case, through the cunt of the liar.”

The four culprits broke down crying as the other squad members tried to look away. It was difficult for Danka to watch her battle-hardened peers in their current condition: so embarrassed they were reduced to tears. The most humiliating insult in traditional Danubian culture was for a person to endure having his or her genitals touched by a member of the same sex, especially a superior. The treatment was absolutely the worst way one woman could inflict dishonor on another. The Nymphs were completely debased, not only by having their genitals fondled by their female leader, but also knowing the other squad members would have to spend the rest of the winter running around bottomless due to their behavior.

With the icy wind punishing her bare bottom and thighs, Danka casually walked out of the cabin and made her way to the kitchen to pick up some ingredients needed by the medical staff. Unlike the other Nymphs, she was not embarrassed at all by presenting herself with the lower half of her body on full display. She had been naked in public throughout much of her life, so her biggest concern was the cold, not the embarrassment. The fighting men and the kitchen workers stared at her, but she did not react nor attempt to turn away to hide anything. Inwardly she enjoyed the attention.

She felt differently about her situation as she descended into the tunnel to visit Ilmátarkt. She knew that he was attracted to her and wondered how he’d react upon seeing her naked from the waist down. It was obvious he enjoyed looking at her, but at the same time he tried to not make his staring too obvious. He respected her, so he was reluctant to do anything to further embarrass her. She explained what happened; that the entire squad was being punished because four of its members were charging men to have sex with them. She added that she had been naked for extended periods of time in her past, so Oana’s punishment really did not bother her.

Ilmátarkt commented, “If you were from Rika Chorna, it would be different: you'd be much more upset and humiliated. In the Vice-Duchy, among the True Believers, what Oana is making you do would be considered a very severe punishment, excessively harsh indeed.”

“I’m not worried about it. I’d much rather be naked than be whipped, or have my hair unbraided, or have my food taken away from me.”

As she placed her supplies on the table, Danka noticed her companion looking at her uncovered backside with a hungry expression. She bent over to better display the curves of her bottom and her muscular thighs. She wanted to show herself to him and see what might happen.

The doctor moved behind her, “Your squad leader certainly did me a favor by punishing you. You are very pleasing to the eye.”

Ilmátarkt placed a hand on her back to silently instruct her not to move. He explored her bottom with his other hand, massaging her uncovered backside. Her skin was cold from having been exposed to the outside elements and covered with goose-pimples. She enjoyed the feel of his warm hands on her chilled skin. Wanting more, she spread her legs and arched her back, lewdly displaying her body and inviting him to explore her vulva. “I’m a total hypocrite, you know.”

“In what way?”

“I emphasized to Apprentice Isauria that she needs to avoid using the position I’m in now. I think she’d laugh if she could see me.”

“We’re all hypocrites, each in our own way. You’re no worse than anyone else.”

Ilmátarkt’s fingers explored Danka’s vulva. As he teased her clitoris and gently pushed inside, she moaned and became wet. She couldn’t resist. It had been six months since she last had sex with anyone, and that last time didn’t really count. She had seduced a man not because she was attracted to him, but to find out if all of his fine words about family loyalty really meant anything.

The doctor took off his clothes. Danka was surprised that he would take off his shirt, given how cold it was in the chamber. He put his shoes back on and positioned himself behind her. Following protocol, Danka did not move once she had committed herself to having sex. She was his to use and enjoy. Oddly enough, the feeling of abandoning herself totally aroused her. She was more than ready when he entered her and started to vigorously thrust. She struggled to keep her voice as quiet as possible to avoid drawing attention of people working in other parts of the cave.

Danka ended up staying with Ilmátarkt the entire night. He had a very nice bed; much more comfortable than the one she shared with Isauria in the women’s cabin. The bed alone would have made her want to stay, but she also wanted more sex. They made love two more times before wearing themselves out. She fell asleep and remained unconscious well into the next day.

* * *

While Danka was sleeping with her new lover, Oana became increasingly upset over her absence. The squad leader was in a foul mood anyway over the humiliation from her subordinates’ whoring, and now she had to deal with a member who was AWOL. At sunrise the next day she sent her Nymphs to find out where Danka might be. One of the kitchen workers mentioned that she had taken some supplies to the medical staff, had gone down into the cave, and had not come back out.

Oana was more than furious. She already considered Danka the most rebellious and disrespectful member of her squad, and now she was going AWOL with the medical staff. Some suppressed snickers and mocking looks from her half-naked subordinates worsened her mood. It seemed she had lost the respect of her entire squad, and in doing so had lost control over her authority to command.

All of the women, especially Danka, needed to be taught a lesson. Oana decided to formally flog her in front of the rest of the squad. Maybe severely disciplining one of her Nymphs would restore some order. The squad leader threw some chains with cuffs over the cabin’s main support beam and sent Isauria to the unit commander to ask for his whip. When Danka returned, she would face an entire evening of being restrained and whipped.

After hanging the chains, Oana turned around and noticed her squad members staring at her with hostile expressions as they whispered among themselves. There was no doubt about it, she had lost their respect. What she did not realize was how close she was to facing an open mutiny in the cabin and that her plan to flog a squad member was making the situation considerably worse.

Oana was missing two of the things needed to “teach her squad a lesson”; Danka and the whip. The only whip in the unit was with Commander Sáupeckt, since flogging was reserved for the severest offenses and only he had authorization to allow its use. Oana assumed that, because she was his lover, he’d lend it to her. She also needed to retrieve Danka before her temper subsided or before the other Nymphs could object to what was about to happen. She decided to send the lowest-ranking member of her squad, Apprentice Isauria, to ask the commander for the whip. As soon as she had it, she’d fetch Danka and make her return to the cabin.

Isauria wanted to warn her former mistress, but did not know where she was. Instead, she ran around the snow-covered compound looking for Commander Sáupeckt. He was not in any of his usual locations, so she decided to try the cave. One of the medical assistants told her that the commander was not there, but confirmed that Danka was present, sleeping in the side-chamber that had been taken over by lead doctor. Isauria was relieved that she could warn Danka before resuming her search for Commander Sáupeckt. She burst into the doctor’s sleeping area and surprised the lovers in their bed.

When the apprentice delivered the news about the impending flogging, the doctor calmly stood up. He did not bother to try to cover himself.

“Apprentice, your squad leader will do no such thing to Defender Danka. That woman has gone mad, thinking she has the authority to lay a hand on her. You can continue searching for the commander and deliver his whip to your squad leader; in fact, I encourage you to do so. But, I guarantee Defender Oana won’t be using it. Instead, she will receive a lesson in humility.”

Ilmátarkt noticed the frightened look in Isauria’s eyes. He added, “Don’t repeat anything I just said. Just find the commander and deliver the whip, as you’ve been ordered. But rest assured Defender Oana won’t be using it.”

As soon as Isauria left, the doctor turned to his lover. His next words totally shocked her. “How would you feel about marrying me?”


“Marrying me. Right now. We’d make good partners. Our Paths in Life are compatible. And, you have good reason for marrying me today. Oana can’t flog you if you’re my wife.”

“I… I don’t know… this is a bit sudden…”

“I was planning to ask you anyway. Your squad leader’s latest bout of temper changed the timing of my proposal, nothing more.”

Danka took a deep breath, trying to absorb the shock of the sudden development. She didn’t love Ilmátarkt, but he certainly was the most compatible man she had known in a long time. She enjoyed talking to him and working with him. He had just proven himself as a good lover. Assuming they both survived the war, he would earn a good living and would provide her with a good life. Most importantly, she respected him. And… he was right about Oana. If she was married, her squad leader would lose much of her authority over her. The pending flogging would not happen if she could show Oana a marriage certificate. Whether or not she loved the man, under the circumstances it was logical to accept his proposal.

Danka forced a smile and nodded, kissing his hand.

“So you accept?”

“Yes, my love. I accept.”

Ilmátarkt put on his clothes. He handed Danka an extra pair of trousers to put on, figuring that she probably would not want to go before the Priest to get married with the lower part of her body uncovered. The doctor again surprised Danka by opening a small wooden box containing three pieces of jewelry: a silver headpiece, a silver ring, and a silver necklace.

“So, as you can see, I was serious about asking you to marry me.”

Following protocol, Ilmátarkt put each of the items on his fiancé. The jewelry identified her as officially engaged.

She forced another smile, as she tried to assure herself the latest sudden change in her life wasn't a strange dream.

* * *

In the Duchy, both in the past and in modern times, a couple’s engagement period normally lasts a year. Apart from the waiting period being considered proper protocol, Danubians entering marriage need to be absolutely sure they are compatible, because the Danubian Church does not allow divorce.

Danka’s engagement with her future husband lasted less than half an hour. She nervously waited while Ilmátarkt’s subordinates summoned the ragged Priest and prepared an official-looking marriage certificate. The Priest showed up, accepted two silver coins as a fee, and performed a brief ceremony. The medical staff acted as witnesses. Danka would have liked to have her fellow squad-members, or at the very least Isauria, attending the wedding, but under the circumstances that was not possible.

The reception consisted of a table with two bottles of wine, a cooked venison leg, and some dried fruit. Danka and her husband (it was still hard to accept she had a husband) ate with four other medical staff and the Priest.

The group was finishing their meal when Danka’s livid squad-leader stormed into the doctors’ section of the cave. She was about to grab Danka by the collar when she saw the hairpiece. The doctor stood up and coldly addressed his visitor.

“Defender Oana. A pleasure to see you, as always. Do you need to speak with my wife?”

“Your wife?”

“Yes, my wife.” Ilmátarkt held up the marriage certificate.

“I wouldn’t know about that and I don’t care. I’m here to pick up my squad member.”

“Well, as her husband, you’d need to ask me for permission. I’m not granting it and I’m insisting you leave. To leave immediately, without my wife.”

Oana was beside herself with anger, but protocol forced her to depart without Danka. A husband’s authority over his spouse superseded the authority anyone else might have over her.

Oana's only option was to report to Commander Sáupeckt to demand that he order the doctor to turn his wife over for discipline. She was angry enough to complain to the commander, even though she knew bringing him into the squad’s problems would make her lose honor and alert him that she was having difficulties with her command. She would be jeopardizing her position, but at the moment was too angry at Danka to care.

Oana’s encounter with Commander Sáupeckt did not go well. Already he had heard complaints about recent problems in the Nymphs’ squad; thus he was not sympathetic to the squad leader’s request to formally flog a member for what seemed to be a relatively trivial offense. Danka was not really AWOL: the medical staff knew where she was and she certainly had not left the encampment. Oana countered that the flogging was not so much about the specific incident of Danka’s absence; it was more about her over-all attitude and the fact the squad leader wanted to make an example out of her.

Commander Sáupeckt saw the situation differently. He did not believe in "disciplining through setting an example". Danka's offense was too trivial to warrant a formal flogging. Any other lapses of discipline should have been handled at the moment they were committed, not all at once. Also, he valued his unit’s doctor and was actually glad to find out that he had married Defender Danka. He had wanted to transfer Danka to the medical unit anyway, but had held off on the move because he did not want to offend Oana. However, Oana's pride no longer mattered. The commander explained the pending transfer and his reason for ordering it, adding the conflict between the two Nymphs and Oana’s loss of control over her squad would make the decision to reassign Danka much easier.

The commander still needed to resolve the leadership problem he had with Oana. The prostitution scandal and the way she handled it already had convinced him that she needed to be relieved of her command. However, she was a talented fighter and instructor, as well as being one of his lovers, so the commander did not want to do anything that would too badly damage her honor. Demoting her and making her serve under a former subordinate was not an option and would likely further degrade the morale of the squad. So… how could Oana be stripped of her command without being officially demoted and disgraced?

The commander’s solution was to send her on a recruiting expedition among the manors and villages in the Eastern Valley. He wanted more archers for the upcoming summer’s campaign anyway, so it made sense to have Oana establish a second squad of Nymphs. She would recruit and train them: the new squad would be entirely her creation. It would be a chance for Oana to have a fresh start with a new group of subordinates and employ her talent as a trainer.

Commander Sáupeckt left the topic of Danka and explained the need for the second squad. Rather than waiting for them to come in one-by-one, it would be better to recruit women over the late winter and early spring, train them as a unit during the late spring, and have them ready to participate in the next summer’s fighting by the end of May. Inwardly Oana was devastated, because she fully understood her lover was about to take away her position and was trying to find a way to do so without dishonoring her.

Oana saluted without saying anything. She’d only make herself look bad if she objected. It was obvious Commander Sáupeckt had made his decision and she had little choice but to play along and pretend it was an honor instead of a humiliation.

* * *

Danka returned to the Nymph’s cabin the following day, after spending a second night with her husband. She was still a Nymph and would continue training with the other women, but her relationship with the squad and Oana had changed. She served at the discretion of her husband, not Oana. The only way Oana could force Danka to do anything not approved by the doctor was to appeal to the unit commander. The squad conducted target practice, sewed, and prepared crossbow bolts over the following week, but the Nymphs were sullen and quiet. Oana was very reserved and seemed to have lost enthusiasm for her duties. The Nymphs were not speaking to their leader, nor did anyone have anything to say to Danka. Isauria seemed unusually nervous and jumpy. Because Danka no longer slept in the women’s cabin, she did not hear any gossip that could have answered her questions concerning what was going on.

On Saturday morning Commander Sáupeckt showed up with his second-in-command and the Priest. The Nymphs stood at attention while the commander announced the squad would have a change of leadership. Oana and another veteran Nymph, a tough peasant woman called Dalibora, stood in front of the others while the Priest recited some prayers in badly-spoken archaic Danubian. Danka tried not to smirk in contempt, because her knowledge of the Old Language far exceeded his. Oana handed her crossbow to Dalibora and the two women saluted each other. Commander Sáupeckt then departed, taking Oana with him. The Nymphs would not see her again until the following summer. As soon as the commander and his entourage disappeared, Dalibora issued her first command to her troops: to retrieve their trousers and put them on. Her second command was directed at Danka, to make sure all of the women had an adequate supply of birth-control paste.

Danka returned to Ilmátarkt’s cave to prepare a new batch of paste. When she finished, she spent the afternoon making love to her husband, first bent over a table in his lab, and then under his bedcovers.

Danka's marriage added an entirely new set of worries, responsibilities, and protocol to her life. She remained a Nymph and was expected to practice combat with the unit's other women. She also was a medical assistant, and was expected to spend her time in the alchemy lab working with the doctors as they conducted surgeries and cared for the sick. She continued with Isauria's education, forcing her to improve her vocabulary and penmanship. Isauria remained in the cabin and had to find a new sleeping partner, but her education was still mostly Danka's responsibility.

Above everything else, Danka was a Danubian wife. While it was true that Ilmátarkt was amazingly open-minded about the Realm of the Living and its mysteries, he was still a man of the eighteenth century and expected his woman to serve him. Danka had given herself to him: she now belonged to him and was obligated to do whatever he said. She would have to spend much of her time attending to his needs and comfort: cooking and serving him meals, cleaning his clothes and his living area, and submitting to sex whenever he wanted. The adjustment was hard for a person who had traveled throughout the Duchy and had been responsible for her own actions and survival. However, Danka also understood what was expected of a married woman. If Ilmátarkt told her to do something, no matter how unreasonable, she'd do it. It was her responsibility to make sure the marriage worked, not his. If anything displeased a married man, it was assumed his wife was negligent in her duties to him.

Danka's marriage, like most marriages in the Duchy at the time, was a marriage that arose from necessity and circumstances, and to lesser extent physical attraction. (There never was any romantic love between Ilmátarkt and Danka, as we would understand "love" in modern times). Romance was a luxury for the wealthy during peacetime, not for a field surgeon and a female archer living in a frozen military encampment in the middle of a war. They were practical people who were forced to lead practical lives under difficult and dangerous conditions.

Still, Danka was pleased to be officially married, in spite of not being in control of her life anymore. Marriage was, (and remains so in modern Danubian society) the most important part of a person's Path in Life during their existence in the Realm of the Living. Protocol dictates that an adult who is not married is not complete and is sinning by not fulfilling the Will of the Creator. Danka had not really thought about it, but the years had gone by more quickly than she could have anticipated. Before she left Rika Héckt-nemát she had expected to be married before her 17th birthday. The longest she would have wanted to stay single would have been two years, starting from the time she braided her hair and ending the day she went before a Priest as a bride. Well, at the beginning of 1757 Danka already was 22 years old, well past the age most lower-class Danubian women got married. As a woman with an eighteenth-century mindset, she was enormously relieved that she finally had a husband, even if it was at a relatively late age.

In one way Danka, an educated woman for the time, was fortunate, because she had married a man who was intellectually compatible with her. He respected her experience and opinions on professional matters, so her submissiveness as a wife did not affect her freedom to think as an alchemist and medical practitioner. She helped Ilmátarkt and the assistants in the alchemy lab, preparing medicines and talking at length about inoculations, operating procedures, and disease prevention. She talked about her surgical training at the Followers' compound and the brutal custom of injuring pigs and then operating on them for practice. They went over Ilmátarkt’s notes and field observations. Over the rest of the winter, Danka made numerous corrections, ignoring the custom that a good wife always deferred to her husband's "wisdom". If she could improve his knowledge on a medical topic, he gave her the freedom to do so.

The couple spent many hours chatting in bed. Ilmátarkt had formal education and had done some reading before fleeing Nagorónkti-Serífkti, although he had not attended a university. His knowledge of biology exceeded hers, but his knowledge of botany was more limited and he knew nothing about geology. He realized that he had the opportunity to fill in some of gaps simply by talking to his wife about her university studies during her year in Sebérnekt Ris. They talked extensively about her readings about religion and philosophy and the competing sects of Christianity. Danka still considered herself a Follower of the Ancients more than anything else, but admitted the events over the past year had badly undermined her beliefs.

“I don’t know anymore. Maybe we really do live in the Realm of the Destroyer. Maybe the Creator and the Ancients really have departed our world, and the Destroyer took over.”

Ilmátarkt’s response totally shocked her. “I don’t think we live in the Realm of the Destroyer, nor anyone else’s Realm. I’ve never seen the Ancients, or the Creator, or the Destroyer. I’ve not seen Jesus or Mohammed. If I’ve not seen it, as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t exist.”

Danka sat up. “You… don’t think the Ancients exist?”

“I suppose they existed as real people at some point. Then they died and someone else came along and made up stories about them. The same with Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed. I’m sure they were real men at some point, but they died just like anyone else. Then, people who needed to use their names to justify themselves, or their place in the world, or assume control over others, made up stories and convinced themselves their heroes were still alive.”

“But you don’t believe there was anything special about them…”

“Not really. The must have had strong personalities and loyal followers, but you could say the same about the Grand Duke, or even about Commander Sáupeckt. Who knows? Maybe when they die, enough people will make up stories about them and they’ll be the next divine beings. There’s really no reason why that couldn’t happen.”

The conversation continued for a while, before Danka's husband revealed another blasphemous idea; that he did not believe the Realm of the Creator, or "Heaven", as the True Believers called it, existed.

“But… what do you think happens when our souls separate from our bodies?”

“I don’t think there’s anything to separate. We die and our bodies rot, just like an animal’s body rots. We’re no different from animals. They are born, they live, and they die. We are born, we live, and we die. There’s no difference in the pattern of life and there is no soul. You cut open an animal or a human, and the insides are exactly the same. You should know that better than anyone else. You practiced operating on pigs so you could operate on men. The organs and bones are the same. The life-cycle is the same. So, what evidence is there that we are different from animals at all? To me, the evidence points in the other direction. We’re just animals, but don’t want to admit it. So we come up with stories about men who don’t die, who can fly through the air and control the weather and control worlds we’ve never seen. And in the end, we think these friends of our imagination can help us. But what difference does it make, what we choose to believe? Has a god or a prophet or an Ancient ever added a single minute to anyone’s life? I’m convinced it’s all wishful thinking.”

“It’s not wishful thinking, Ilmátarkt. I wish it was.”

“So, you’ve seen an Ancient? In real life? Not just in your imagination?”

“Not an Ancient, but I’ve seen the Destroyer. The Destroyer… visits me every so often… to taunt me, or to tell me what’s about to happen. And it’s not something I want. It's always something bad.”

“And how do you know that’s not just your fantasy or a bad dream? How would you know that? What makes you so important the Destroyer would only want to talk to you?”

“It’s not fantasy. It isn’t. It’s real… more real to me than anything in the Realm of the Living.”

“Listen. You’ve endured a lot of bad experiences, some of which you’ve shared with me and some of which you’ve chosen to keep secret. These are unpleasant times and we’ve all endured bad events in our lives. The memories affect our perception of the world. I have no doubt the Destroyer visions are real to you. But I’ve never seen anything like that, and until I do, I’m not convinced.”

“Then I hope you don’t. I hope you don’t ever have to know what I know…”

“You’re very knowledgeable about a lot of things. But on what's real and what's imaginary, I don’t think you know anything at all. The only place the Destroyer exists is in your thoughts. If the Destroyer wishes to convince me otherwise, let the Destroyer talk to me. Or the Creator, for that matter. Or the Ancients. I’m not going to believe in any of that just because someone else wants me to. I’d have to see it for myself.”

Ilmátarkt abruptly changed the subject. "We both need to get to sleep. Tomorrow morning I want three eggs cooked with cheese and onions when I get up. The bread is stale, so you'll need to cook it and burn off the mold. Might as well cook all of it, because I don't think the scraps will be any good past tomorrow. Make sure you cook an extra portion of eggs and bread for yourself and your apprentice."

"Yes, my love."

Ilmátarkt fell asleep. Danka remained awake, studying his bare shoulders and the hair which had grown out on his head. She'd have to shave him: it would not do to have her husband looking unkempt. She tried to push aside her worries about his blasphemous musings that would have caused his execution almost anywhere in Europe if he ever shared them in public.

He was a strange man, but Danka was convinced that, as a partner in the Realm of the Living, he was the best she could hope for. She wondered how much longer the war would continue, and whether or not she and her husband would survive it. They'd have to think about leading a respectable life somewhere... and even think about children. After-all, that was one of Danka's duties as a wife, to bear her husband children. Whether or not she wanted children didn't matter. As a wife, she was expected to have them as part of her Path in Life.

She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. Perhaps she did not swoon with romance every time she was near her husband, but she did care for him. That was actually good, because her feelings were not the sort that would quickly fade. She was not infatuated: what she wanted was to have a partner with whom she could build a real life.

She reflected about her previous loves and smiled at the naive craziness she had felt the first time. She would never feel that again: Bagatúrckt destroyed that part of her soul when he assaulted her in "the Graveyard of Virtue." Well, now it didn't matter. That was a long time ago and Bagatúrckt was long-dead.

Her thoughts drifted to Elder Ermin. She had been much less naive around Ermin and had other lovers at the time she knew him. However, in a quiet and sub-conscious way she had been infatuated with him. Ermin had treated her as an inferior because of the difference between their ages, but he never betrayed or disappointed her. It seemed Ilmátarkt was a lot like Ermin in many ways, except that he was much younger, maybe around 26. Danka was 22, so the difference in age would not affect how they treated each other.

* * *

Danka drifted off to sleep, but did not sleep very long. She woke up in the darkness and groped her way towards the main medical area, where a single lantern was always lit. Shivering in the cold, she lit a second lantern and returned to Ilmátarkt's bed to retrieve her clothing. She had woken up early, but that was just as well. It would take her a while to prepare the breakfast and summon Isauria.

As she glanced at her still-sleeping husband, a troubling premonition swept through her, that she would not have the opportunity to bear children with him after-all. She worried about the curse that she carried: that because of her, his life would end shortly and end badly. Was he destined to die and was she destined to live without him?

She pushed aside that thought and made her way to the tunnel that led outside. The clear pre-dawn air was brutally cold, but a full moon illuminated the snow, making it easy to find the path leading towards the kitchen cabin.

Suddenly she stopped. Her feet no longer moved; they were firmly anchored to the ground. She took a deep breath before the world vanished into pitch black darkness. Two yellow eyes, starting out as mere dots in the distance, slowly approached her, growing until they filled her entire range of vision.

"Danka... Defender Danka... Danka Síluckt..."

Danka tried to push the image out of her mind. It was her imagination. It was her imagination. Those eyes weren't real... just her over-active imagination. She needed to pick up her feet and keep walking and get those eyes out of her sight. She tried to move forward, but her feet wouldn't budge.

"Danka Síluckt, don't try that with me. You know it won't work. You can't wish me out of your life."

"Then how can Ilmátarkt do it?"

"Because he's a fool, that's why. I don't bother with fools. I let fools think whatever they want, because it doesn't matter. In the end, everyone comes to me, whether they want to or not."

"...and you can't let me live with the same illusion as my husband?"

"I could, but I choose not to."

"So, what do you want from me?"

"Right now, just to remind you I'm still here. Your husband can prattle on about how my Realm doesn't exist, but you know that's not true. And if you try to forget, I'll return to remind you."

"Then... what about the question he asked? Why am I so important that you'd only want to talk to me? What makes me so special?"

"You're my witness. When everyone around you lives no more, you're the one who will walk away unscathed. You're the one who will carry the memories."

"Memories of what?"

There was no answer. The darkness vanished and the moonlit night returned. Danka was able to pick up her feet. She was chilled to the bones and sick with horror and fear, but at least she could move again. She caught her breath and continued her trek to the kitchen. Regardless of the fate eventually awaiting him, for the moment Ilmátarkt was still alive and still needed his breakfast.

Chapter Twenty-Five – The Destroyer's Servant

The final months of the winter of 1756-57 turned out to be good ones for the Defenders’ encampment. It was a time of peace and rest that passed more quickly than Danka had expected. Commander Sáupeckt's militia was totally cut off from the outside world for several months, but there was plenty of food.

Danka’s life among the Nymphs became considerably more pleasant under Dalibora, the new squad leader, than it had been under her predecessor. Oana was brave, tenacious, and competent in battle, but she was too focused on harsh discipline and had a hard time maintaining morale among her women when they were not campaigning. Dalibora was much more gregarious and everyone liked her. She had a quiet charisma that Oana totally lacked, keeping the squad under control though her personality instead of constant threats of the whip. She had a way of talking to her subordinates that made them want to please her. She skillfully and patiently manipulated the other women’s emotions, to the point she exercised absolute control over the squad within a few weeks.

Danka wondered how competent Dalibora would be in battle. Oana’s personal strength manifested itself in a chaotic fight, while Dalibora’s character seemed more suited for keeping bored women under control during peacetime. One detail that troubled Danka was Dalibora’s lack of curiosity about trying new weapons and fighting tactics. It occurred to Danka that perhaps the squad should have two leaders: Oana to lead the women in the field, and Dalibora to lead the women in the encampment. Of course, such an arrangement would not be accepted by anyone: either Oana would have to lead or Dalibora would have to lead.

* * *

Danka spent some of her limited free time reviewing her journal and the miscellaneous notes she had collected during her travels. She called upon Isauria to help her transcribe her work; not because she really needed the girl’s help, but to force her to practice writing and penmanship. Isauria was not the best student: she much preferred to be running around with the male apprentices. However, Danka emphasized that her former servant needed to learn how to write to improve her chances of having a decent life in the Duchy. She also had a premonition that Isauria would be more important either to her future, or to the future of the Duchy, than anyone could have imagined at the time. Perhaps, when whatever disaster the Destroyer had hinted at took place, it would be Isauria's Path in Life to survive it, just as it would be Danka's path in life to survive. If the girl was indeed to be a witness, she'd have to know how to write well, whether she wanted to or not.

As Danka noted to the bored adolescent, "You have no life to go back to in the Kingdom. You've seen, as much as I have, how the Destroyer has completely wrecked your homeland and killed your people. So, it doesn't exist anymore. Like it or not, you're now Danubian. You are a girl of the Duchy. You will marry a Danubian husband and raise Danubian children. That is your Path in Life."

And... it was true. When Danka saw Isauria running around with the other apprentices, it was obvious there would be no going back "home" for her.

* * *

During the snowbound months, there was plenty of work for the militia's doctors. While it was true there were no war-related wounds, there were injuries from accidents, falls, burns from carelessly handling fire, training mishaps, and frostbite cases. Ilmátarkt was an expert at setting broken bones, while his assistants were competent at sewing shut open cuts and gashes. Danka's knowledge of alchemy was a valuable addition to the medical staff's capabilities, contributing the Followers' knowledge about disinfectant and sedating patients before operations. She asked the cooks to provide her with live animals upon which to practice and gave hands-on demonstrations about the use of anesthesia.

She also shared her university medical diaries with her husband. Ilmátarkt found the readings very interesting, not only for the information they contained, but also because they were all dated 1752-1753. Danka claimed to have been at the university for three years, but the dates on her notes did not support that claim. Ilmátarkt fully understood his wife was hiding something about her past.

Danka may have considered her husband strange for his weird blasphemous ideas, but her mixture of lower and upper-class habits was equally strange to him. Her vocabulary and table manners were typical of a woman from the nobility, but her accent was definitely lower-class. She could kill and butcher any animal with ease and confidence: she was not afraid to dig her hands into a pig's intestines or pull a chicken's head off. She knew a lot about farming, hunting, and fishing, but she also knew a lot about music, geography, religion, and literature. She could sew both fine embroidery and thick leather. She knew how to prepare a huge variety of food, from primitive stews to fancy pastries. She knew a lot about politics and guild protocol. She had visited every major town in the western half of the Duchy, along with a few places outside the country's borders.

Ilmátarkt pondered the bizarre mixture of traits in his wife. He correctly guessed that she was born into the lowest class of laborers, but she had widely traveled and somehow spent enough time with the nobility to pick up many habits unique to the Duchy's finest citizens. He calculated it would have been between 1753 and 1755 when she learned the traits of a noblewoman. He was curious to know her secret, but he was a patient man and could wait for her to inadvertently drop clues and hints about where she really was and what she really was doing during the two missing years of her life.

Danka's bucket contained manuscripts that she did not share with her husband. Those included her writings about the battles of Hórkustk Ris, Sumy Ris, and Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt, as well as notes on the slave trade and the settlement of Malénkta-Gordnáckta. Ilmátarkt saw all those extra notes in the bucket, but decided not to look at them. Danka was smart and would have been perceptive enough to figure out if he was looking at her writings. Ilmátarkt wanted and expected to find out the truth about his wife, but he wanted the clues to come from talking with her, not from digging through her papers.

* * *

By the middle of April, the snow had disappeared and the forest was coming back to life. The paths had cleared enough to allow the Defenders to make their way towards the villages to celebrate the Festival of Rejuvenation, which at the time was still carried the Christian name of "Easter". In the 1750s, the True Believers still associated Easter with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Old Believers had returned the holiday to its more ancient Pagan origins, as a celebration of the Creator's victory over the Destroyer by returning warmth to the Realm of the Living.

The spring festival was also important for the Defenders and the villagers who hosted them. However, the isolated militia members followed neither the Christian nor the Old Believer traditions when they celebrated. Instead of the flowers of the Old Believers or the crucifixes of the True Believers, the militia celebrated with dancing and midnight bonfires to honor the Destroyer's triumph over the son of the Roman God.

According to the Defenders' version of events, the Roman God's son was simply killed and the Resurrection did not happen. Instead, following the death of the "Son of Man", the Destroyer triumphed over and over, first by destroying Jerusalem, then by destroying Rome, then by destroying all of Europe through multiple invasions against Christian countries. The Roman God had proven himself weak and incapable of protecting his followers. Only the Destroyer could triumph, only the Destroyer had true power in the Realm of the Living. The Roman God existed as a hapless witness, unable to do anything to prevent the wrath of the Destroyer.

Danka felt sick when she understood how the Defenders celebrated Easter and what the holiday meant to them. She did not want to believe that the Destroyer had such power over everything: she always wanted to hold out hope that somehow the Creator, or the Ancients, or even the Roman God, could combat the "Profane One" and win. She shared her doubts with her husband, but his answer was predictable and did nothing to ease her despair:

"The Realm of the Living is inherently destructive. It has to be, because otherwise there'd be no room for new life. Everything decays and rots. As for the violence, that's just because we haven't figured out how to create enough food, so men don't have to fight over things like farmland. We don't need fantasies like the Destroyer to explain why people invade each other's territories when they're starving. The Defenders are right about the Creator, the Roman God, and the Ancients. They're helpless to protect us, but it's not because they're weak, it's because they're imaginary. But so is the Destroyer. It's all fiction. Imagination."

* * *

Several militia units descended the muddy wooded trails from various winter campgrounds to converge on the largest of the three settlements. They traveled on foot, but fortunately they had mules to carry their supplies. The journey was wet, tiring, and lasted several days. Danka spent the most of her time talking to her husband about the area and some of the Defenders’ previous campaigns. Meanwhile, Isauria walked alongside Dalibora and learned more about the system of trails the militia members used to move about the region.

Before entering the settlement, the Nymphs stripped off all their clothing and placed it in a bag guarded by Isauria. Although the weather was still chilly, they gave up everything, even their shoes. The naked militia women walked into the settlement in single file and gathered with their village counterparts, who also were completely undressed. To Danka's dismay, the villagers' hair was unbraided. The oldest woman among the villagers ordered the Nymphs to kneel and close their eyes. A villager took her place behind each Nymph. Danka held her breath. Sure enough, she felt a stranger's fingers undoing her braids. She cringed at the horror of knowing all those men, including her husband, would see her with her hair undone. She was used to being naked in public, but having her hair loose was an unbelievable humiliation, a sacrifice of women's honor to appease the all-mighty Destroyer.

The purpose of the celebration was to acknowledge the Destroyer's power over the Realm of the Living. There was a large pile of scrap lumber piled in the village square, surrounded by torches. In the middle of the pile was a sacrificial victim, a captured foreign priest dressed in a purple smock that was supposed to mimic a royal robe. The prisoner represented the son of the Roman God and would be burned to death as an act of defiance against a divine being who supposedly was all-powerful. The Defenders' priest was un-seemingly cruel to his captured counterpart, taunting him and encouraging him to pray to the Roman God, just to prove his deity was powerless to save him from the true power of the cosmos: the Destroyer.

The naked, sweaty women danced for hours to the beat of sinister-sounding drums and flutes, completely exhausting themselves before midnight. They had to prostrate themselves on the muddy ground while the fire was lit. As the flames consumed the foreigner and separated his soul from his body, the Defenders' priest called out to the Destroyer to share the power of devastation with the militia so they could have a successful campaign against their enemies. The victim's screaming seemed to continue for an eternity. Danka later learned the fire had been set up so he would die slowly and suffer.

When the victim's agonized screaming finally subsided, the militia's Priest shouted into the air, "In the end, we all come to you, whether we want to or not!"

The drums continued to beat as the men indulged themselves with ale. The women were dismissed and immediately went to the settlement's bathhouse to wash off the mud and re-braid their hair. Just like everything else in that village, the bathhouse was a wretched, primitive structure. As she waited for her turn to bathe, Danka thought about the pristine washroom in the Grand Duke's castle. She had hated her life as a concubine, but at the moment she wouldn't have minded spending a nice lazy afternoon sitting in comfortable warm water in the Grand Duke's marble tub.

When she returned to her husband, Danka couldn't bear to look at him. She was dishonored: he had actually seen her with her hair unbraided!

Ilmátarkt was not scandalized, but he did not have any sympathy with his wife's distress. He told her not to be ridiculous and that he could not have cared less about her hair. To him, the Danubians' fixation with braided hair was as idiotic as their belief in the supernatural.

Danka did not reply, but she could not accept his casual dismissal of the most important part of a Danubian woman's honor. Braids were what defined a Danubian woman's very identity. How could he not consider braided hair as vital to proper protocol? What was he, a foreigner?

* * *

Springtime is normally a time of celebration, a time to be happy about the end of food shortages, confinement, and the physical discomfort of being cold all the time. Danka, however, did not feel any joy as the weather warmed up and the snow melted. Soon enough, the Defenders would return to the border and the battles with the Kingdom of the Moon factions would resume. There would be desperate surgeries on wounded men, of which she could expect only half to be successful. She'd have to endure the guilt of triaging patients and making the decision whether to operate or whether to administer a dose of poison to put a casualty out of his misery. She'd have to kill with her crossbow, yet again, and in doing so would add more suffering to her soul in the Afterlife.

Oana returned to the encampment during the first week of May, with a new squad of Nymphs recruited from the Vice-Duchy of Rika Chorna. Whatever faults Oana had with her personality did not interfere with her ability to identify dissatisfied women and talk them into abandoning their lives and responsibilities. The recruits did not really understand what they were getting themselves into, but the promise of a silver piece for every month of service and learning how to handle weapons was a tempting alternative to their drab and oppressive Paths in Life in the Vice-Duchy. At first glance it seemed the new Nymphs were as varied a group as Danubian women could possibly be. Some of the women were peasants and some were from the guild class. Their ages ranged from 16 to 37. However, they had one thing in common: they were all fugitives. Some of the older women were fleeing bad marriages, and some of the younger ones were fleeing their fathers. Two were thieves who had spent a humiliating afternoon in the pillory, three were fleeing money lenders, and one was fleeing from a jealous landowner's wife.

Danka said nothing as she watched her former commander with her new subordinates. She had to hide her lingering hostility; the resentment that she felt from the older woman's desire to flog her for no good reason. However, like everyone else in the militia, she knew that bringing up old disputes in front of Oana's new squad would only cause trouble and hurt the morale of the Nymphs.

There was no mention from anyone about Oana's previous command, nor how she lost control of her squad. The new recruits never learned that the women in Dalibora's unit had been under Oana's orders just a few months before. What mattered was that Oana had redeemed herself and was ready to train and lead her new squad. Oana was a more experienced fighter than Dalibora and had a better instinct for strategy, so the squad leaders agreed that Oana would be the one to lead movements and attacks. The disadvantage of the situation was that Oana's squad still needed training and experience, so Dalibora's veterans would need to be extra careful about providing cover for the newcomers as they maneuvered in the forest.

* * *

Danka had to accompany her husband to the smallest of the three villages to assist the birth of the elder's baby. The birth was uneventful, but Danka noticed several geese running around the village square. She remembered the Followers' explosive goose-eggs, knowing that her husband's laboratory had all of the ingredients to make hand-bombs, assuming he could obtain some gunpowder for her. She told Ilmátarkt about the eggs and how Ermin used them so effectively against the True Believers. He was very interested. If only there was a way to preserve the eggs' shells while allowing the villagers to keep the contents. He pondered the problem for a few minutes before searching through his surgical equipment. Eventually he created a small circular saw that, when properly twisted, would drill a hole in the shell without cracking it. He approached the village elder and explained what he needed: as many empty goose-egg shells as the village could provide. He would leave behind the extractor and pay the villagers a copper coin for every five intact shells they could deliver to the encampment.

The dim-witted settler looked at the doctor with an incredulous expression. A coin for empty egg shells? Yes, but they had to be neatly drilled with no cracks and completely cleaned out. The village elder took the cutter and said nothing. Danka had no doubt she'd receive her egg shells, but there also was no doubt the elder had no intention of sharing Ilmátarkt's coins with any of his neighbors.

While she waited for the first batch of egg-shells, Danka prepared the chemicals and refined the gunpowder needed to make the hand-bombs. Through her husband, she sent out word that she needed volunteers who knew how to use slings. Several male archers showed up, from whom Ilmátarkt selected four, based on their ability to accurately aim their rocks. He explained that the volunteers were about to try out an experimental weapon, which needed to be launched with slings.

When the first batch of eggshells arrived, Danka had all of the ingredients needed to assemble four explosive bombs and two flash bombs. With trembling hands she carefully poured in the first layer of explosives, laid in a layer of melted beeswax to separate the next ingredients, and poured in the accelerant. Another layer of wax, and she put in a detonator that was designed to go off as soon as the seal at the top of the egg was broken. Each bomb was extremely volatile: even being turned upside down was enough to set it off.

As much as she hated doing so, she had to sacrifice one of each type of bomb in a test to make sure it worked. Ilmátarkt and Danka led the four volunteers away from the camp. Danka took charge of the sling and loaded the goose-egg. She took a deep breath, swung the bomb and released it. She screamed at everyone to get down and cover their ears. The deafening explosion blew apart the nearby trees and rattled the entire area. The blast brought dozens of panicky Defenders scrambling towards the crew with drawn crossbows and loaded muskets.

Commander Sáupeckt showed up, as dumbfounded by the explosion as everyone else. He was present to witness the flash bomb being tested. Danka was enormously relieved that she had been able to duplicate both types of the Followers' secret sling-bombs.

Because Danka "belonged" to her husband and thus was not allowed to speak for herself, Ilmátarkt was responsible for explaining the goose-egg bombs and how they could be either thrown or used with slings. He gave as much credit to his spouse as protocol would allow, but ultimately he would receive the honor of introducing the new bombs to the unit. Had Danka not been married, she would have been able to claim credit for the innovation.

Danka planned to prepare additional bombs as empty goose-eggs and more beeswax arrived at the encampment. She would have liked to prepare some landmines as well, but mines would have been useless. The mobile nature of the Defenders' manner of fighting made the positioning of explosive traps unrealistic as a tactic. The sling-tossed bombs were a different matter.

* * *

The Defenders moved towards the border at the end of May. The first part of the trip consisted of walking with pack mules along steep hillsides to return to the villages. The settlements took care of the Defenders' horses over the winter, where they had to be left because the mountains did not have enough forage. The militia exchanged their mules for horses and continued mounted towards the combat zone. The settlers had cleared a series of meadows and had set up ponds to water animals, so the Defenders and their mounts arrived at the border at full strength and in excellent health.

The situation to the south had deteriorated over the winter. The village from which the Lord of the Blue Moon's troops had been attacking Commander Sáupeckt's section of the border had been raided by troops from the Lord of the Red Moon, precisely because the Blue Moon troops assigned to protect it had launched a raid against Red Moon territory. The scope of the civil war was expanding into previously peaceful areas. The land was burnt and desolate, there was no food, and the surviving population was desperate.

The Danubians decided to further demoralize the foreign towns near the border by riding through the region in a show of force. They could gather a total of 1500 Defenders, which was a force larger than any of the broken Kingdom of the Moon units operating in the eastern section of the country at the time. Commander Sáupeckt and his fellow commanders discussed the possibility of permanently occupying some of the southern land, and the ride-through would allow them to see how feasible that idea would be.

The Danubians gathered and forded the small river marking the border at the end of the first week of June. 1500 mounted Danubian militia fighters would not have been a match against the Lord of the Red Moon's powerful army just three years before, but by 1757 the Kingdom's armies had been decimated by continuous fighting, movement, and atrocities. At that moment neither faction had an available unit in the area large enough to counter the unexpected invasion from the Duchy.

The Danubian column rode unopposed through the war-torn region for several weeks. They did not attack any civilians as long as the local populace did nothing to impede their procession. When word spread that the Danubians were not as cruel as the Lord of the Red Moon's men, the locals stopped fleeing. Instead, the wretched, starving foreigners silently stood along the roadways, sullenly staring at the strange invaders. Danka noticed the women and girls paying particular attention to the squads of Nymphs, sitting on their horses with crossbows in their hands and satchels of bolts slung over their bare shoulders. It was bizarre and scandalous for the Kingdom's women to see their Danubian counterparts with their heads and torsos uncovered, with cold hard expressions on their faces and, above everything else, holding weapons they clearly were accustomed to use against male opponents.

Danka remembered her husband's words from the previous year: "...among the Defenders, your life will have a purpose. And when we go south, and you’re riding your horse with a squad of armed Nymphs, the women of the Kingdom of the Moon will look at you with respect and awe. Remember, the Kingdom’s women don’t fight. They don’t do anything other than serve their men. So when they see the infamous Danubian Nymphs… women carrying weapons… it makes them wonder about their own Paths in Life. And as far as being part of something much greater than yourself, among us, you will be. We’re defending the Duchy. You, a mere woman, have taken up arms and are defending the Duchy. You can’t be part of anything more important than that."

There was an important exception to the Danubians' rule about not attacking non-combatants. Any foreign priests, monks, or other church officials that could be captured were immediately chained and sent northward to the Duchy. They would be held in a forest prison until the Defenders returned from their campaign, to be sacrificed in the Destroyer's bonfires. The Defenders didn't just want the foreign clergy as sacrificial victims; they also wanted to demonstrate that the blessing the Roman God and his executed son had supposedly granted the Kingdom of the Moon was a total lie. The Roman deities couldn't even protect their own clergy, so how could they protect the Kingdom? The local populace only lived because the Danubian militia allowed them to live, not because of any Divine blessing from Rome.

Although the Defenders met very little resistance during their tour through the southern towns, their leaders decided to return to the Duchy at the beginning of July. The main problem was lack of food in the Kingdom. There was not much point in raiding or foraging, because the previous year's harvest had been destroyed when the Lord of the Red Moon's troops invaded the region. The Defenders could move into any area they wanted, but they couldn't stay because there was nothing for them to eat.

The column of militia fighters was both relieved and disappointed when their horses waded the shallow river back into the Duchy's territory. The fight they had expected did not happen. The fighters were alive to celebrate and feast in the three villages, but they had not fulfilled their Paths in Life as Defenders. The units drifted off towards their assigned protection zones, not having accomplished anything apart from showing off to a bunch of wretched foreigners and exploring some of the enemy's territory.

* * *

The commander ordered Danka and her husband to pick up a supply of empty goose-egg shells from the villagers, return to the laboratory in the winter encampment, and make as many bombs as possible. The couple entered the cave and set up the alchemy equipment. However, before Danka had the chance to mix the ingredients for a new batch of bombs, her husband expressed doubts about the project and a possible improvement. The volatility of the bombs and their extreme fragility troubled him. They were simply too dangerous to carry long distances. He wondered if it was truly necessary use goose-egg shells for the casings. Wouldn't blown glass make better casing material? What about glazed ceramic? Perhaps that would be even better than glass.

He brought up the alternatives to his wife, but she was skeptical, commenting, "I don't know, my love. The Followers used goose-eggs for a long time, and I'd imagine it was for a good reason."

“Well, we need to find out if there really was a good reason. I think the only reason they didn’t try a better casing was because under their circumstances it wasn’t necessary. Our needs are different and I’d like to use a casing that’s more dependable than an eggshell.”

Ilmátarkt worked on a glazed ceramic design for the explosive bombs that looked like a goose egg, but was twice as big. The section dividing the explosive from the accelerant was part of the internal design. There was a hole between the sections that would be sealed with beeswax, but it was much smaller than the area that would need to be sealed inside a goose egg. He also devised a glass casing for the fuse. When she packed in the explosive, Danka had to agree Ilmátarkt’s design was a huge improvement. The test blast from the enhanced bomb was comparable to the power of explosives that would be used in the late 20th century. Not only did it destroy trees; it tore a hole in the ground and shattered the stones on a nearby hillside.

When he saw the destruction from the enhanced bomb, Commander Sáupeckt whistled with satisfaction and anticipation. Assuming he could keep them secret until the first time they were used, he knew they would guarantee him a victory. That meant he could be more daring in his efforts to provoke a raid from the Kingdom of the Moon, and that for the first battle he would not have to call upon other militia commanders for help. He pondered the possibility of conducting a full-blown massacre of a large enemy unit, using nothing but his own troops and the new bombs.

After his counterparts departed with their units, Commander Sáupeckt came up with a plan to goad one or both of the Kingdom's factions to make another attempt to attack the Defenders in their home territory. Without consulting the other militia leaders, he ordered three of the captured foreign priests to be brought to the main village to be burned alive. A fire was set up in honor of the Destroyer and the three foreigners were brought to the village square. However, one of the victims' bonds had been left loose, on purpose. The villagers threw him against a wall while they tied up the other two priests. Realizing he had a chance to escape, the young cleric untied himself and fled. A squad of Commander Sáupeckt's most trusted men chased after him, but their orders were not to capture him. Instead, they were to stay close enough to make the priest believe he was about to be caught, but all the while making sure he headed in the right direction so he could safely cross back into the Kingdom.

The staged escape had a specific purpose; to goad the Kingdom's factions to attempt a rescue of the remaining captured clergymen. Undoubtedly the escapee would warn his countrymen what was happening to the priests. The Roman God would be quite displeased with the Lords if they allowed the Danubians to sacrifice the Kingdom's priests to the Duchy's Beelzebub. It was ironic that in the Kingdom torturing and impaling civilians was perfectly acceptable, but to do anything to a priest was considered an unacceptable outrage. How horrid that the Danubians would leave worthless civilians alive, and instead defile sacred clergy members!

As soon as the Kingdom's men entered the mountains, Commander Sáupeckt would try out his new bombs. His plan was to defeat and annihilate a force much larger than his own with no help from the Defenders' other militia units. The glory of the victory and all the loot would be reserved solely for him and his unit. More importantly, he hoped to keep the sling-bombs a secret and use them in another surprise attack at some point in the future.

Danka was not really expecting her commander's plan to work. Surely the Lord of the Blue Moon would not blindly sent troops into the Danubian mountains, given the humiliating defeat from the previous year. Certainly he'd take precautions, and if need be, not be overly worried about the priests. Anyhow, it seemed the Lord of the Blue Moon's forces were depleted and unable to defend their own territory, let alone launch a cross-border raid.

All of Danka's doubts about the Blue Moon faction were true. A column of 2000 men did cross into the Duchy on July 17, but their banners were red, not blue. A commander from the Lord of the Red Moon's Army, hoping to avenge the battles of 1754, came directly from Sumy Ris and led his troops into the forest, completely unaware of the defeat endured the previous year by the Kingdom's rival faction. The Danubians began their counter-attack predictably enough, with hit-and-run archery raids. The column sustained a few casualties, but the force attacking it was ridiculously small. The foreigners continued advancing against the villages. They had no plans to actually occupy them: they'd simply kill whoever was there, rescue the priests, burn buildings and supplies, and withdraw.

The pathetically small size of the force countering the Red Moon column played into Commander Sáupeckt's plans. The Red Moon troops were overconfident by the time they reached a large meadow that was only a half-day's march from the villages. The area was completely open: there was no way the guerilla tactics of the Danubians would be of any use in such an area. The foreigners watered their horses and allowed them to graze. The troops set up their encampment well away from the trees and from the deadly bolts of their enemies. A few musket volleys would easily dispatch any Danubians foolhardy enough to appear at the wood line. The final part of the march would be more challenging, but there was no reason to think the villages would not be under the Kingdom's control by the middle of the next day.

Commander Sáupeckt had only 230 fighters under his control. At the last moment he decided to ask his most trusted counterpart for back-up, which increased the force with 110 additional Defenders. The leading commander positioned his own troops at the exit leading back towards the border, while the other unit deployed at the exit that led towards the villages. The Defenders were hopelessly outnumbered, but they knew that Commander Sáupeckt would not have deployed in such a manner had he not devised a horrible surprise for the enemy.

The commander had sixteen squad members who knew how to use slings: the four who had trained under the unit's doctor, and twelve more he had recruited and trained himself. Each sling-bearer carried a wooden box containing four sling bombs: one flash bomb and three explosive bombs. The plan was extremely simple. The men would first sneak past the line of sentries and creep close enough to throw their charges into the encampment, causing chaos with the flash bombs and then injuries with the explosives. The other Defenders then would attack the stunned foreigners. The sentries and outer defense would be attacked first, then the main unit of Defenders would rush the camp and with traditional weapons and kill as many as possible.

The blinding light from sixteen simultaneous flash bombs was truly amazing. The meadow momentarily lit up much brighter than daytime and anyone not covering their eyes during the flash was blinded by the extreme light. Within the invaders' camp, wild screaming and disorganized shooting began immediately, but it was too late. The bomb throwers did not have to worry about being spotted when they stood up to discharge the second round of bombs: their targets were totally blinded. The men calmly flung their explosives in unison and ducked to avoid the blast. As soon as the noise subsided, they stood up, loaded their slings a third time, twirled their eggs, and let them fly into the camp. There were three sets of horrific explosions that wrecked the entire enemy encampment. Maimed horses and mutilated men scrambled in every direction.

Both militia units charged forward as soon as the final blast went off. They quickly dispatched the stunned sentries before heading into the main cauldron of maniacal horses and mutilated and dying men. Their attack was not going to be a battle; it was going to be a massacre. The archers ran among the injured foreigners and wildly emptied their crossbows at anyone who was still moving, while the men with muskets bayoneted anyone lying on the ground. A handful of invaders were still able to put up a fight, but the biggest danger for Danubian and foreigner alike was the multitude of blinded injured horses running around, tumbling, and crashing into everything in sight. A few tents caught on fire, giving the Defenders enough light to complete their grim task.

Danka moved with Dalibora's squad, firing bolt after bolt into the agonized men struggling all around her. At the moment she didn't have time to think about what she was doing: she simply followed orders and acted as a Nymph was expected to act. She only stopped when she became separated from the others and ran out of bolts. Then her adrenaline ran out and her fatigued arms went limp. The crossbow fell out of her hands and she collapsed onto a pile of bloody corpses. A couple of the bodies were still somewhat alive.

One dying man pushed up and tried to grab her. She tried to get up, but lost her balance and fell to the ground. A man fleeing from a Defender’s crossbow was hit, staggered, and fell on top of her, completely pinning her. She felt the enemy’s body jerk as the Danubian fired a finishing bolt and his soul separated from his body. The Defender ran off, not noticing in the darkness that his victim had fallen on top of a Nymph.

Danka struggled to breathe. The wind was knocked out of her and she remained stuck under the corpse that crushed her chest. For a few minutes she lay quietly, gasping for breath and staring at the stars and smoke. The massacre continued. Danka knew that she had to get up and find more crossbow bolts, but she couldn't move. She weakly pushed at the corpse, but her exhausted arms could not budge it, any more than a toddler could have moved a dead horse. So that was it. She was out of the fight. She continued staring at the stars and smoke, wondering how long it would be before someone found her.

The stars and smoke disappeared as her world went completely dark.

Oh no... please... no... not now...

"Danka... Danka... Danka..."

She saw nothing until she turned her head. The unblinking yellow eyes were staring at her. When she tried to turn her head in the other direction, the eyes followed her.

"Don't try that with me, Danka. You have to answer."

"Yes. I have to answer. You're not giving me much choice about it, are you?"

"I'm not giving you any choice at all, Danka Síluckt. When I call, you will answer."

"And this... this is your work?"

"Ha! Actually, in this instance you bear the responsibility. You're the one who made this glorious victory possible. You volunteered the knowledge of the bombs. You made the bombs. You showed your companions how to use the bombs. You allowed your husband, the unbelieving fool that he is, to improve the bombs. You placed the bombs in the hands of your commander. The only thing your commander did was put them to good use. The rest of it is your doing, not anyone else's."

Danka had no idea how to respond. The eyes vanished, but her world remained completely dark.

Finally the darkness cleared from her brain and she looked up into the predawn light. Two men from her unit, each carrying a bloody sword, spotted her lying under enemy corpses. They pulled off the bodies and helped her up. She was unsteady on her feet. One of the men handed her the crossbow, which she accepted and held limply in her hands.

"Defender Danka. Your husband's looking for you. There are plenty of injured and you need to report to him immediately."

"Which way?"

"The doctors took over that tent, the tall one with the banner."

Danka tried to pull herself together as she walked towards her husband's surgery area. She was dead tired, but no one cared. A long day of operations lay ahead of her.

The Defenders’ casualties were unusually heavy for a single battle. Those killed outright during the fighting numbered 15 and the total number of seriously wounded was 39. The medical staff spent the day sedating patients so her companions could remove bullets and sew up bayonet slashes. There were several burns and multiple trampling injuries from horses. Some of the wounds were too serious to successfully treat given the level of medical knowledge at the time; of the 39 seriously injured patients only 21 could be saved. Danka quietly poisoned the others to put them out of their misery. Two of Oana’s recruits were among the mortally-wounded patients the medical staff was unable to save.

The day ended and the field surgeons stepped out of the medical tent. In spite of the losses, the victory was significant. As far as anyone knew, not a single man from the Kingdom of the Moon escaped. The uninjured Defenders stood guard over groups of villagers who had been drafted to collect and haul away the enemies' weapons and clothing. The seized equipment coming out of the battle would be impressive, making Commander Sáupeckt's unit by far the wealthiest and best-provisioned group of Defenders operating along the border. Now Danka understood why he didn't want other units participating in the attack. Not only was he trying to keep everything secret, but he also did not want to have to share the loot. He would allow the villagers to keep clothing, leather, and whatever food and condiments they found, but all weapons, metal, uninjured horses, and coins had to be turned over to the militia.

The scene was unbelievably horrific. The enemies had been stripped of their uniforms and the exposed mutilated bodies of horses and men already were starting to reek in the hot summer afternoon. Within a few hours the place would become unbearable and would have to be abandoned to the birds and wolves. No one wanted to imagine what that meadow would look like the next day.

By sunset the stench was too bad for the Danubians to stay any longer. Danka could barely lift her crossbow, but she stumbled along with the rest of her squad while her husband and his assistants struggled to help the injured evacuate. The Danubian dead were taken out as well, hauled by the villagers on the backs of mules. They would be buried the following day, adding 33 graves to the ever-growing military cemetery. It was well after nightfall when the Defenders and the settlers arrived at the main village with the casualties and loot. There would be funerals tomorrow, an assessment of the condition of Commander Sáupeckt's unit, and some badly needed rest.

Before going to sleep, Dalibora handed Danka thirteen silver coins, her share of the loot that had been recovered from the coin purses of the invading force. She said nothing, but looked at the money with disdain. Money. What difference did money make? So... after killing 2000 men and dealing with the deaths of several people she knew, that was all? Thirteen silver pieces? She resisted the temptation to toss the money aside. She didn't want the coins, but forced herself to hold on to them by convincing herself they were partial compensation for the money she had spent on Isauria. Certainly Oana would have made that argument.

* * *

The exhausted Nymphs watched as the villagers mounted severed heads on poles and placed them around the village square. The heads belonged to the Red Moon commanders. After the funerals, the captured enemy priests would be forced into the square to see the heads and understand there had been a rescue attempt that had failed miserably. They would be encouraged to pray for a miracle, right up to the moment they were burned alive to appease the Destroyer.

Danka tried to push the image of the severed heads out of her thoughts. As the Destroyer had told her, this was her doing. She realized how much damage that she, single-handedly, had inflicted against the Kingdom of the Moon. The Grand Duke's victory in Hórkustk Ris three years earlier was the direct result of the Followers' explosives recipes. A month later, Sister Silvítya (as she was known at the time) was the one who convinced the Sovereign to pull his troops out of Sumy Ris in time to avoid a defeat. The Defenders' previous summer's victory against the Lord of the Blue Moon's men was partially the result of her actions. This latest victory, against the Red Moon army, was directly the result of her knowledge and actions. As a mere woman, a Royal concubine and the wife of a field surgeon, no one would ever acknowledge her, but the destruction she had unleashed against the Kingdom of the Moon had saved the Duchy, several times over.

How ironic is the Realm of the Living. The Kingdom of the Moon's worst nemesis was a wandering peasant girl, an anonymous young woman no one would ever know about. Danka wondered how many other times in history the Destroyer had used a completely unknown and unacknowledged person to determine the course of events and obliterate a nation. She felt no pride in what she had done, nor really did she feel any shame. The Destroyer just as easily could have used some unknown girl from the Kingdom, perhaps even Isauria, to ensure the destruction of the Duchy. One kingdom was destined to live and the other destined to die, and it was the Destroyer who made the decision which nation would be spared at the expense of the other.

So... maybe the Defenders were right after-all. Maybe the Destroyer did control everything in the Realm of the Living and was the only deity that needed to be honored. Certainly there was no indication that either the Creator or the Ancients had any control over any of the events Danka had witnessed in her travels.

She looked up at the nearby treetops. An owl, that owl, sat in a branch staring back at her.

* * *

Commander Sáupeckt's unit did not participate in any more combat during the remainder of the summer of 1757. A third of his troops had been killed or wounded during the massacre of the Red Moon encampment, so his unit was in no condition for another fight. The injured still had to be cared for and transported away from the unsanitary villages, along with the muskets, ammunition, and other military equipment taken from the battlefield. It was the middle of August before everything and everyone was safely transported back to the winter campground and the new supplies were safely stored away in the caves.

The commander sent several squad leaders and other subordinates to the Vice-Duchy of Rika Chorna and Hórkustk Ris Province to augment his command. He planned a dramatic expansion of his unit: from 90 surviving members to over 400. He now had the weapons and ammunition necessary to create three entirely new companies. Like all Defenders, the newcomers would be trained in guerilla tactics, but their main responsibility would be firing muskets in formation. There were enough surviving horses from the Kingdom to establish a small cavalry unit to augment the musket companies.

Commander Sáupeckt planned to dramatically change the Defenders' tactics and strategic goals during the summer of 1758. He hoped to carry the war into the Kingdom of the Moon and establish a permanent Danubian presence in territory that had not been part of the Duchy since 1502. From what he saw during the ride-through during the previous June, there would not be much military opposition if the Danubian unit was large, properly armed, and not spread out. That would present a problem for occupation: the Defenders simply did not have enough to troops to conquer and occupy. They'd have to do one or the other. An even more pressing problem would be having to bring in food. However, the commander figured that having to ship in food could possibly work to the Defenders' advantage because it could be traded to the locals for equipment and support. Perhaps the commander could even recruit a unit of Blue Moon subjects to fight alongside his men when they attacked the Lord of the Red Moon's depleted forces. If in 1758 he could inflict a defeat on the Lord of the Red Moon's forces comparable to the one he had achieved in 1757, there wouldn't be much standing in the way of his dream of occupying land and turning it over to the Royal Family in exchange for being appointed governor.

The expanded size of his unit would make Commander Sáupeckt the most powerful leader among the Defenders, but to pursue his goal of altering the militia's strategy from defending the Duchy to conquering new territory he would have to convince the other unit leaders to support him and submit to his command. The militia commanders had mixed feelings about his amazing rout of the Red Moon column. They were impressed with the victory itself and glad that such a large enemy component had been eliminated, but they resented the fact Commander Sáupeckt had conducted the operation without anyone's consent and did so specifically to keep all of the seized weapons and ammunition for his own unit. Still, a victory was a victory, and the other commanders had to hide their misgivings about Commander Sáupeckt from their troops. To the ordinary Defenders, Commander Sáupeckt and his fighters were heroes. It was obvious he was intelligent and brave and had great plans for the future of the Duchy. He deserved everyone's respect and deserved to be followed.

Between August and October, the Defenders transformed the three villages into a military garrison that rivaled the largest garrisons under the control of the Grand Duke. Recruits flowed in, happy to have the chance to practice with real muskets and be part of the Duchy's future glory. Other commanders sent some of their troops to train with Commander Sáupeckt's men, so the size of the garrison fluctuated between 1000 and 1500 Defenders at any given time. When the weather became cold the fighters lived in relative comfort, in new cabins heated by ingenious cast-iron stoves that burned cave-charcoal instead of wood. The villagers were put to work mining and hauling the strange black rocks, motivated by the promise of new stoves for their own houses and not having to cut firewood.

* * *

During the winter, Danka continued her busy existence. She trained with Dalibora's squad, learned better how to ride a horse, worked in her husband's provisional laboratory as he prepared medicines and explosives, cooked for him, and spent as much time as possible trying to educate Isauria.

Isauria stood as tall as Danka by the beginning of 1758. Her menstruations had started and she was very interested in the boys running around the village. Danka insisted she started using the birth-control paste and, sure enough, the girl lost her virginity to one of her fellow apprentices in February. Even though she had prepared for it, Danka was furious that Isauria would start having sex so early in life. However, she decided not to say anything. It seemed that Isauria enjoyed her first experience and was ready for it, unlike Danka, who was much more naive, even at an older age.

She consoled herself with the thought, 'At least Isauria won't have to go through what I went through. For her, there will never be a "graveyard of virtue", nor will there be a Bagatúrckt to damage her soul...'

* * *

Commander Sáupeckt changed over the winter, in a way that worried Danka. Instead of thinking no further than the next battle, he started thinking about the future, of what the Duchy's new southernmost province would be like once it was secured and he was acting governor. There was happy talk of farms and seized manors, of slaves from the conquered population and new Danubian towns. The militia leader was suffering from the same hubris that afflicted the Grand Duke, of imagining himself as the man who had the glory of conquering Sumy Ris and returning to its rightful place within the Danubian Duchy. He started talking more like a town elder or a land-owner and less like a military commander. Meanwhile, the expanded militia spent the winter training to fight a conventional war in open territory. Commander Sáupeckt reorganized the units several times, experimenting with different tactics and maneuvers to see what best fit the needs of his forces.

Danka wondered what it was about Sumy Ris that seemed to make otherwise intelligent Danubian leaders lose their common sense. Yes, the city was the first Christian settlement and the Danubians' second most important political and religious center throughout the Middle Ages, but that had ended 250 years before. Apart from the cathedral and a few other buildings, very little remained from its Danubian past. Yes, the location was ideal for trade, but it was totally indefensible. As the Defenders became increasingly excited about the glory of re-taking the former southern capitol, Danka became ever more uneasy about the future. She remembered the Destroyer's words: "You're my witness. When everyone around you lives no more, you're the one who will walk away unscathed. You're the one who will carry the memories."

Commander Sáupeckt spent the early spring corresponding with provincial leaders around the Duchy to obtain food for his troops and money to pay them. At the beginning of April the Grand Duke surprised everyone by responding with a large shipment of silver coins, enough to buy some supplies and pay the entire garrison for three months. When she saw the guarded wagons of Royal silver arrive and the paymaster distribute the pay among the troops, Danka wondered why the Grand Duke would be so trusting of a leader who was not part of the regular army's chain of command. Later that night, when they both were in bed, she decided to bring up the topic with Ilmátarkt.

Her husband responded, "This whole situation is a huge bargain for the Grand Duke: a single shipment of silver in exchange for an entire army. Commander Sáupeckt laid a gift at His Majesty's feet and he is smart enough to realize it. We supplied our own muskets and just about everything else. He didn't even have to provide food or horses, just some coins. We are not under his direct control, so we are not his responsibility. We can live or die, we can succeed or fail, with no consequences for the Crown. If we succeed and survive, the Crown claims more land for the Duchy and we are dismissed with some service metals, a certificate of gratitude, and maybe the title to a small farm, nothing more. If we fail, he is not to blame and his army will suffer no losses."

"I guess that makes sense. Certainly sounds like him. All he ever thought about was turning everyone and everything to his advantage. I remember..." Danka caught her breath, regretting that careless statement the instant it was out of her mouth. Ilmátarkt sat up and intensely looked at her in the dim light of the room's single lantern.

"So... you know His Majesty?" Have you met him?"

It was a simple question, perhaps totally innocent, but it forced a difficult decision on her. She did not want her husband to know about her time as a Royal concubine. However, protocol dictated the absolute worst thing a wife could do was tell a direct lie to her husband. It was a terrible sin in Danubian culture, even worse than adultery. In theory, if a man caught his wife lying to him and could prove it, he had the right to kill her. Up until that moment she had insinuated that she had been at the university between 1753 and 1755, but had never openly said that. She looked away.

"Yes, Ilmátarkt. I know His Majesty."

"How could you know His Majesty? When did you meet him?"

"I met him... four years ago. In the plaza of the Great Temple in the capital."

"What about the university?"

"I was a student for a year. Then I left."

"Interesting... because it confirms something I was wondering about. You showed me your university notes, which I appreciate. However, I did notice that none of those papers were dated after May 1753. No dates from 1754 or 1755. So, I suspected you were somewhere else over the next two years."

"I was in the capital."

"In the Royal Household?"

"Yes, in the Royal Household."

"Doing what?"

"What do you think I was doing? Why do you think the Grand Duke would keep me in his castle?"

There was a long pause, while Ilmátarkt wondered what to ask next. He did not want to force his wife to openly admit she was lying to him about the two missing years of her life, but he was curious to know more about the Duchy's ruler.

She broke the silence. "In my bucket I have some sealed packages of parchment. All of the information about my life with His Majesty is in there. My notes can tell you the story better than I can. Then..."

"No. I won't read your papers. The decision about what you choose to tell me about your past needs to be yours. But, you do understand that you are never again to deceive me with your words, even by omission."

"I understand that, my love."

Ilmátarkt ordered Danka to get out of bed and stand against a chair with her legs spread and her bottom sticking out. She worried he might punish her. He rubbed her bottom and ran his hands between her legs. When he became erect, he entered her and thrust hard. She could tell by the rough way he was making love to her that he was still irritated. However, there would be no switching from him. On the surface the incident was over.

However, she knew the incident was not over at all. Over time she would need to reveal to him the details of her humiliating life with the Grand Duke. It would have been so much easier for him to simply read about it and ask her a few questions, or for him to interrogate her and extract the story in a single tearful night, but he was not about to let her off so easily. She would have to decide what to reveal and when. The conflict between sharing her past and keeping it hidden would weigh on her conscience. Her husband was very much aware that he had pushed a difficult responsibility onto her, which was his way of punishing her for the attempted deception.

She took a deep breath as they got back in bed. She had to start somewhere, so she figured it would be best to start with information that would be useful for the Defenders' upcoming campaign.

"During the war... the siege... I was in Hórkustk Ris with His Majesty. And I was also in Sumy Ris. I saw the battles... and I talked to some of the Royal Protectors about things I didn't see. So I know, in detail, what happened in both places. I know the layout of Sumy Ris... I saw the old cathedral... and all the newer buildings... the ones built by the Ottomans. It's different from the old drawings we have. If you borrow one of the commander's maps and let me write on it, I can update it for you, so there're no surprises when we go in."

* * *

It was not hard for Danka to anticipate that the incursion into the Kingdom and the effort to capture Sumy Ris was destined to end in disaster. She just hoped the Destroyer was wrong about her own Path in Life and that she wouldn't survive. She had already seen too much and had no desire to have yet more atrocities added to her collection of memories. However, she suspected any release from her grim life was not to be. Her most recent encounter with the Destroyer was always present in her thoughts as she listened to her fellow Nymphs talk about the upcoming campaign. At times she saw them as ghosts: already it seemed the separation of their souls from their bodies was closing in on them. Especially at night, as the Nymphs sat around the fire, Danka imagined each of her squad-mates holding her mirror.

'I wish I could hold up my mirror instead of them. It is my Path is Life to witness their fates and that is not what I desire. I want to be blissfully dead and buried before the souls of the others separate from their bodies. I don't want to have to deal with their deaths. I don't want to have to bury them.'

She thought about the two people she most cared about, her husband and her former servant. If the expedition was indeed to end in disaster, there wasn't much she could do to preserve the life of Ilmátarkt. He had to travel with the commander and that was the end of it. However, Danka was able to come up with an excuse to prevent Isauria from leaving the Duchy. The wife of the village elder who had the baby the previous year was pregnant again and about to deliver. The elder was angry that none of the unit's doctors could stay behind to help out. To placate him, and to make sure Isauria stayed in a safe location, Danka assigned her to help with the delivery. Dalibora, convinced the apprentice was still too young to accompany the Nymphs on a full-scale military campaign, agreed to order her to remain in the village instead of marching south.

Chapter Twenty-Six – The Witness

The Defenders crossed into the Lord of the Blue Moon's territory the day before Good Friday, 1758. The force consisted of 2600 mounted raiders, musketeers, Nymphs, and even several cannons. Additionally, there were wagon trains bringing along enough supplies to travel as far as a crossroads south of Malénkta-Gordnáckta. The Grand Duke promised to dispatch additional supplies from the border town, but the help would not include any regular troops. Danka realized the Sovereign would help the Defenders in case they did, by some miracle, have a chance of taking Sumy Ris, but secretly he did not expect them to win.

The Sumny Ris Campaign of 1758

On the southern shore of the river that formed the border between the Duchy and the Kingdom, the Defenders celebrated Easter. The dispirited local populace watched from a distance as the Danubians burned four screaming captured priests and their women danced naked around the huge bonfire. The invaders spent the next day passing out loaves of bread and dried river fish to hundreds of starving bystanders, feeding them to mock the story out of the Christian New Testament. An officer who spoke the Kingdom of the Moon's language shouted:

"The Roman God and his executed son cannot feed you, so it was our Path in Life to give you this meal! Remember, in your prayers, who fed you and who did not!"

The Defenders' journey to their first objective, the crossroads south of Malénkta-Gordnáckta, proved more difficult than the easy ride-through the previous summer. The Lord of the Blue Moon's army had partially recovered from the previous year's defeats and was strong enough to engage the Danubians. There were a series of small battles as the Danubians worked their way westward, which resulted in 50 killed and 120 injured. The musketeers and archers were not as affected by injuries as were the cavalrymen. Ominously, the Defenders already had lost a third of their best horsemen even before reaching the rendezvous point. The cannons were not as useful as the commander had anticipated because they took too long to set up. The sling bombs were not being deployed because the commander wanted to hold on to that secret for the final assault on Sumy Ris.

The Defenders were enormously relieved to see the Grand Duke's supply expedition, after having spent nearly two weeks fighting skirmish after skirmish. The Defenders' commander ordered all of the wounded to return north with the Grand Duke's army. After the regular soldiers departed, the invaders rested a day before continuing westward to their objective. Their morale greatly improved when the harassing attacks from the Lord of the Blue Moon's troops became less frequent. They passed through countryside that was completely depopulated and vacant, the contested zone that had been repeatedly devastated by war and invasions over the past four years.

The Lord of the Blue Moon's troops fell back, but not because the Defenders were too strong for them. The eastern enemy would shadow the Danubians to see what happened when they entered the Lord of the Red Moon's territory. Meanwhile, they would wait for supplies and re-enforcements. The Lord of the Blue Moon had learned from his past reckless mistakes and actually had a sound strategy regarding the Danubian invasion. He would wait to see if there was a major battle between the Danubians and the rival faction, then, assuming the victorious army was severely weakened, would attack the winners with his forces intact. The Lord of the Red Moon had decided on the same strategy. He would allow the Danubians to advance, see if the Blue Moon column attacked them, then order his men to assault whoever remained alive. So, the Defenders continued their advance towards Sumy Ris, aware of the two armies following them but mistakenly assuming neither was strong enough to launch an attack.

* * *

On May 11th, the Defenders approached a town called Aksheriri Ris. The location was significant because it was inside the Lord of the Red Moon's territory and was only a day's journey east of the former Danubian capitol. In fact, from its hilltop it was possible to see the upper part of the watchtower overlooking Sumy Ris.

Commander Sáupeckt knew that he had to capture Aksheriri Ris before proceeding to his main objective, to use it as a base of operations if at all possible. Aksheriri Ris was not very large, but its location was much more defensible than the flat farmland surrounding Sumy Ris. It sat on top of a hill and was partially surrounded by a small river that had cut a row of steep cliffs to the south and the west, so it could only be approached from the east or north. The town was much newer than Sumy Ris. During Danubian times it had been the site of a large seminary, but after 1502 the Ottomans tore down the seminary and used the location as a defensible place to store trading goods. There were some solidly-built warehouses around a market, along with a central plaza and a large mosque that was demolished after the Kingdom of the Moon became independent from the Ottoman Empire. The most important structure (apart from the ruined mosque) was an Ottoman-built garrison building, on the far northwest side of the town.

At one time the place must have been attractive, but in 1758 Aksheriri Ris was not in good condition. The town already was damaged from the war of independence and also from a raid the previous year by the Kingdom's rival faction. Only about half of the houses were occupied and the remaining inhabitants had partially dismantled the others for building supplies. The city had a wall facing the northern and eastern approaches, but the wall had collapsed in several places, leaving large gaps through which an enemy could easily enter. The Lord of the Red Moon's army had dug some trenches and built cannon emplacements over the past winter, but in May of 1758 there were not enough men to guard them. There were three guarded gates, to the east, northeast, and north that the residents still used out of habit, but there were plenty of other gaps where a person could freely walk into or out of the town.

Aksheriri Ris had a garrison of several hundred troops from the Red Moon army and about half of the civilian population was still living there. The place definitely was not abandoned and would have to be taken by force. When he saw the garrison, Commander Sáupeckt suddenly realized how precarious his situation had become because the Danubians would not be able to take Aksheriri Ris without suffering significant losses. They would not be at full strength to assault Sumy Ris and there were two enemy armies of unknown size lurking nearby. Ilmátarkt commented to Danka that he had sat in on some of the commander's planning sessions and the other officers seemed very aware that capturing and holding onto Sumy Ris with 2500 troops was unrealistic, especially if the Danubians felt it was necessary to hold onto a second town and split their forces.

Under the circumstances the Defenders would have been better off bypassing Aksheriri Ris and trying to flee northward towards the Duchy. However, doing so would have entailed battling in the open with the forces of the Lord of the Red Moon and there was no guarantee the Danubians could hold off a sustained attack. Also, the majority of the Defenders were not yet aware how precarious their situation had become, but they would find out soon enough if they had to withdraw under constant assaults. There was another reason the commander decided not to retreat. During the previous summer he had defeated a force ten times the size of his own with his secret weapon: the sling-bombs. The Kingdom of the Moon factions would face a horrible surprise the first time he deployed them. If he chose the right moment and the Defenders killed enough of the enemy, it was possible the superior numbers of the enemy troops would not matter.

Commander Sáupeckt decided a withdrawal was too risky and that if events went his way, it still might be possible to capture Sumy Ris. It would be better to occupy Aksheriri Ris, claim a victory, send word to the Grand Duke that the Defenders had captured a strategic town, and hope the Royal Army would enter the Kingdom to assist with the assault against Sumy Ris. Ilmátarkt and Danka knew that Commander Sáupeckt was too caught up is his own fantasies to realize the Grand Duke would fully understand what really was going on: that the Defenders were cornered and faced imminent defeat.

* * *

The assault on the town went as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The cannon crews finally proved their usefulness by dueling with the garrison's cannons and providing cover for the musketeers rushing through the gaps in the wall to enter the town. The Danubians swept into the unmanned trenches and used them for concealment and cover as they advanced on the town. The trenches were deep enough for the Danubian cannon crews to haul in their guns and direct them against the Red Moon troops at very short range. The townsfolk watched in dismay as fortifications they had worked on all winter ended up aiding the Danubians instead of the town's garrison, by allowing the enemy to easily bypass the outer defenses. With minimal opposition, the Danubians emerged from the trenches and charged through the walls. Danubian musketeers attacked the poorly-organized locals, driving them back while archers entered the houses and took over the upper floors. Families of terrified civilians added to the confusion and greatly complicated the operation.

The Danubians needed to clear out the local population, but did not want to do so by killing them. (The relative goodwill was not just because the Danubians were not accustomed to killing non-combatants: showing mercy towards the locals also would mean having to deal with far fewer rotting bodies once the town was under Danubian control.) When they took over the eastern gate, the militia ordered the Nymphs to start chasing the town's non-combatants towards that exit. Amazed that they weren't being targeted for killing, thousands of panicky civilians rushed out, directed by strange half-naked women screaming in a foreign language and pointing crossbows at them.

Meanwhile, the city's garrison fought bravely, but they were badly outnumbered. The two remaining gates fell, followed by the warehouses. The militia turned the cannons around and used them against the Ottoman garrison building. When the building collapsed and the Danubians killed off the remaining enemy troops, the fighting ended. After a full day of chaotic and brutal combat, Aksheriri Ris came under Danubian control, for the first time in 250 years.

The Defenders had taken the town and could set up defensive positions, but it was clear to everyone they were in deep trouble. A fourth of the attackers had been killed or wounded, which reduced the number of troops available for combat to 1700. Like their predecessors, they did not have enough men to guard the outer trenches and there was no reason a new group of assailants couldn't use them exactly in the same way the Danubians had used them. So, Commander Sáupeckt ordered the unfortunate civilians who had not managed to evacuate to go outside and fill in holes they had spent all winter digging. Filling in the trenches would clear the field of vision and ensure no one could approach by using them as cover. Dalibora watched the operation with dismay. "We need to be using those defenses, not covering them up."

The medical staff set up an infirmary in one of the storehouses and spent the next several days operating on dozens of seriously injured patients. The medical team, in spite of being well-prepared, used up all their supplies. Horrid memories of the wounded from the battles of 1754 entered Danka's thoughts as she worked on dozens of equally hideous injuries in Aksheriri Ris. The mortality rate in the infirmary was very high, because Danka and one of the doctors quietly poisoned any patient they thought would not recover.

At the end of the second day in the captured town, the commander of the squad in charge of the sling-bombs moved his entire stock into a small storeroom inside the infirmary building. His reasoning was that the infirmary was the most defensible building now that the Ottoman garrison fort was ruined and the most likely place the Defenders would make their last stand. The doctors normally would have been very nervous about having high explosives kept among their patients, but it was true that, because the patients could not easily move, it made sense to keep the most important means of defense in the same location.

Danka and her husband looked at the stacked boxes of sling-bombs, to make sure they were secured and none would fall and set off the others. At that moment the couple realized a horrible fact. The only reason the Defenders were attempting to capture Sumy Ris was because Commander Sáupeckt had taken control of the militia and was using it to pursue his own dream instead of protecting the Duchy. The only reason he had taken control over the entire militia was because his unit won an impressive battle the previous summer. The only reason he won that battle was because of the bomb-formula provided by Danka and the design improvement provided by her husband.

Danka looked back at the room full of mutilated patients. "This is our doing, yours and mine. We'll have a lot to answer for when we hold up our mirrors."

Ilmátarkt thought about arguing that only the commander was to blame, but he knew his wife was right. What could he say? They were trying to do the right thing, just trying to help the militia win its battles. How badly their efforts had failed.

"There's a saying... from the True Believers. 'The path to the Domain of Beelzebub is paved with the cobblestones of the kind actions of the righteous.' I guess the Destroyer understood that."

It was frightening to hear Ilmátarkt talk like that. He had always been so confident everything had a reasonable explanation and the deities were just the result of wishful thinking. That confidence in his own intellect and his unusual beliefs seemed to have vanished.

* * *

While Danka spent her time with the medical staff, events outside were moving quickly. Commander Sáupeckt sent out messengers with the cheery news that Aksheriri Ris was firmly under Danubian control and that the Defenders were fully ready to assist the Royal Army in an assault against Sumy Ris. In other words, the hidden meaning of the message was that the militia did not have the strength to take Sumy Ris by themselves and would need back-up.

Historical records from the period indicate the Grand Duke was extremely irritated at the situation and at himself for allowing it to happen. Nevertheless, he did lead an expeditionary force to help the militia. Its purpose would not be to do anything about Sumy Ris, but instead to rescue as many Defenders as possible. The sovereign understood that to do nothing while loyal militia fighters were defeated and slaughtered would make him lose honor among his subjects. However, as soon as everyone returned to the Duchy, the Grand Duke would make the Defenders pay for their folly by disarming and disbanding their units.

Meanwhile, the Lord of the Red Moon decided that allowing the Danubians to continue their occupation of Aksheriri Ris was intolerable. Yes, it would be possible to simply wait and starve them out, but the Lord of the Red Moon was not the type of leader who was willing to wait more than a few weeks. He decided to order his army forward and launch an assault to re-take the town. By the beginning of June he was able to gather 6000 troops for the assault, which was more than three times the number the Danubians had to defend themselves. However, 6000 Red Moon troops in 1758 were not the same impressive fighting force 6000 Red Moon troops would have been in 1754. The Red Moon Army was ragged and disorganized, having lost most of their best troops and officers years before.

When the Red Moon Army pushed forward, they ran into many problems, including getting stuck in the loose dirt of the freshly filled trenches. Still, it appeared they would overwhelm the Defenders by sheer numbers. When the Red Moon troops recaptured the northeast gate, Commander Sáupeckt realized he could not wait any longer to use his secret weapon, the sling bombs. The Danubians hurled the explosives at the assailants and killed enough of them to force a chaotic retreat. The gate was back under Danubian control, but the Red Moon Army was not defeated and now they knew the Danubians' secret. The Red Moon commanders also knew how to defeat that secret, by firing volleys at anyone using a sling or carrying a small wooden box. When their musketeers finally managed to shoot one of the Danubian bomb-throwers, he fell off a rooftop and the explosion from the bomb he was about to throw and extra one he was carrying destroyed the gate along with two cannons and killed dozens of Defenders. As soon as the smoke cleared enough to see what they were doing, the enemy troops surged past the wreckage and entered the town.

Dalibora showed up at the infirmary to order Danka to join the rest of the squad in the defense of the town center. Danka reluctantly left her husband, suspecting it would be the last time she would ever see him. She wanted to kiss him goodbye, but Dalibora was yelling at her to move out.

The Nymphs moved about the upper floors of buildings and houses as they hunted and engaged enemy troops who were fighting to get into the city. The women had to expose themselves to enemy fire whenever they tried to jump from one rooftop to the next, but were greatly assisted by smoke from muskets and burning houses, which provided concealment. However, needing to avoid the numerous thatched roofs of shoddily-repaired buildings and avoiding slippery tiles of many others horribly complicated their efforts to move about quickly. The archers aimed at their targets in the streets below and the enemy musket-men fired back, every so often hitting a Nymph and sending her tumbling onto the ground. Within an hour both Dalibora and Oana had lost half their squad-members.

The Defenders fell back. Already half of the town was back under the control of the Lord of the Red Moon's troops and they were setting up to re-capture some of the larger buildings in the town center. The next large round of shooting, however, came from the east, outside the town. The attention of the Red Moon soldiers suddenly shifted to counter a cavalry charge by the rival Blue Moon soldiers as they attacked and raided the cannon crews of the Lord of the Red Moon's men. The assault was a daring one, meant to silence the Red Moon cannons so the Army of the Lord of the Blue Moon could advance unimpeded towards the town. The civil war reignited as the Red Moon soldiers withdrew from their more advanced positions in town to counter the approaching threat from outside. It turned out the Lord of the Blue Moon's commanders had decided to advance towards the city, but the rival faction had moved in prematurely, because the Danubians had not yet been defeated. The Defenders took advantage of the dubious respite to consolidate their positions around the mayor's residence and the town's armory while the Kingdom's soldiers fought each other. However, some of the Defenders were not able to withdraw and had to fight in place until they were killed.

The night that followed was the most nightmarish of Danka's life, a night in which she saw the Destroyer exercise total control over human beings. There was a chaotic three-way battle between the Danubians, the Red Moon faction, and the Blue Moon faction. Inside Aksheriri Ris, most of the fighting was between the Danubians and troops from the Red Moon Army. Outside, along the slope leading away from the town, the fighting was mostly between Red Moon soldiers and the Blue Moon soldiers. The only light was from explosions and burning buildings, so as the night wore on the fighting consisted of increasingly chaotic clashes between squad-sized units battling enemies they could barely see.

The Red Moon faction consolidated its control of the east gate and its cannons. As soon as the unit's commanders could bring up some cannon crews, the guns fired into the area still held by the Danubians. There were several explosions around the government area of the town. Then Danka saw the infirmary blow up. A cannonball or shell must have hit the room where the sling-bombs were being kept and set them off. Following a massive explosion that sent debris raining over the surrounding area, the building completely collapsed into burning wreckage. If Ilmátarkt was still in there (which was extremely likely) she had just become a widow.

Before Danka had time to mourn her husband, Dalibora's calf was shattered by a musket-ball and she tumbled to a balcony before falling to the street. Danka and the remaining Nymphs had to go down and rescue her, because it was obvious she was still alive and must not be captured. When the women got to her, she was bleeding profusely and it was obvious her leg was badly hurt. Danka tore off her own skirt and ripped it into strips to make a tourniquet. The surviving Nymphs, joined by a squad of Danubian musket-men, covered Danka and another squad member as they dragged Dalibora towards a stone house. They laid her on the floor and Danka more closely examined the wound. The bone was shattered. There was no question the leg would have to be amputated, but Danka did not have access to surgery equipment. All she had was a pouch of morphine and some other medicines to sedate injured patients.

Oana showed up, dragging in a member of her squad who had been shot in the chest. Danka cursed herself, because in the past she had successfully operated on a similar injury, but at that moment she did not have the equipment. Without surgery was not likely the second patient would survive very long. Danka's only option was to sedate her and try to control the bleeding.

The noise of battle continued outside, but Danka was out of the fight. Her quiver was empty and somehow her crossbow had broken. Even if she had crossbow bolts, she wouldn't have been able to use them. She was naked, having given up her skirt to make the tourniquet for Dalibora. Her husband was most likely dead. Her squad leader would never walk again, even assuming she could be operated on before her wound festered. She was in a wrecked stone house with two dying patients she could not treat, in a ruined town deep inside enemy territory.

For a while nothing happened. She peered outside and saw no living soldiers, but there were several dead men from the Red Moon faction lying on the street. Danka's heart jumped into her throat. Red Moon soldiers had been fighting right outside the house. Had they taken the city? The noise of battle had subsided, but by dawn it increased again. From what Danka was able to hear from her location, it seemed the fighting from the east had died down and the new fighting was to the north, and perhaps not even in the city. Then the firing from the east picked up again.

Oana suddenly banged on the door and called out to Danka to let her in. She dragged in another Nymph who had a serious head injury. A quick look at the new patient told Danka she was mortally wounded. Dalibora weakly asked what was going on. Oana paused for a moment, as though she were trying to decide whether to tell the truth or a lie. Finally she responded:

"Nothing's going on. The Red Moons are still in the outer part of the city, but we've pushed them back somewhat." Oana turned to Danka. "Make sure you keep this door barred and don't go out. No matter what you hear or think you're hearing, do not open this door and don't go out. I'll come back when it's safer."

"Can you at least get me a weapon? I don't have any bolts and my crossbow is broken."

"That's your fault. And no, I don't carry around extra weapons to pass out to dishonored careless fools. Now bar the door and don't go outside until I come back."

The battle sounds continued for a while. Danka thought she could hear "DOC-DOC DANUBE! ... DOC-DOC DANUBE! ... DOC-DOC DANUBE! ..." in the distance, but figured it must have been her imagination. The shooting from the north stopped, but there seemed to be a lot of shouting and movement outside. Then that stopped as well. There was more shooting from the direction of the wrecked garrison building and muffled screaming. There was a long period of relative silence, occasionally interrupted by a shot or a scream. Later, in the afternoon, there was another round of shooting near the warehouses and marketplace. Several squads of cavalrymen rode by the house. Later, a group of foreigners stopped outside the door and chatted for a bit before moving away. Danka felt sick. The Red Moon army must have retaken Aksheriri Ris. She looked around the house for women's clothing, but there was nothing. Whatever clothing the owners had they would have taken with them when they evacuated.

She noted a ladder going up to a loft, and another leading to a hatch door in the roof. Maybe she could go up to the roof and observe what was happening in the town. The house was close to the highest point on the hill and its roof stood above the rooftops of the nearby houses, so she had a panoramic view of both the city and the countryside beyond. When she looked to the north, in the distance she saw a large column of troops headed in the direction of the Duchy. She then heard series of horrific screams and some cruel laughter. She looked towards the mayor's residence and saw that the banner flying over the building was from the Blue Moon faction, not the Red Moon faction. Apparently the Lord of the Blue Moon had taken control of the city.

She looked again at the retreating column. Were they Danubian? Was it possible the Grand Duke's regular army did show up to evacuate the surviving Defenders? That would have explained the "DOC-DOC DANUBE! ... DOC-DOC DANUBE! ... DOC-DOC DANUBE! ..." she had heard earlier. But then...why would Oana not have returned to tell her and the others to leave with everyone else? Was it possible that Oana was killed? Or was it possible that she knew about the evacuation? Danka's mind went over the last conversation with her. She seemed to be hiding something. She had repeatedly told Danka not to look outside until she came back. The horrible thought came into her consciousness that Oana had deliberately left her and Dalibora behind, but why would she do that?

Dalibora weakly called out to her. Danka descended the ladder. Dalibora was conscious and in a lot of pain. Danka administered some morphine and the squad leader asked what was going on. As best she could, Danka described what she saw from the rooftop. The squad leader agreed there must have been an evacuation, that Oana knew about it, and out of pure spite, did not tell the rescuers about Danka and her three patients.

"Remember... Oana has the Destroyer in her soul. I'm not surprised. Not at all. She hated both of us and blamed us for her squad being taken away last year. She wanted revenge, and now she got it."

"But... she'd hate us that much... to leave us to be impaled?"

"She hates us that much, Defender Danka. She hates us that much."

"So what do we do?"

Dalibora thought for a moment before responding. She weakly sat up to look at her leg.

"You know... I'm still your commanding officer."


"You are sworn to obey me."

"Yes, I'm sworn to obey you."

"Then I am ordering to you poison me. And I'm ordering you to poison the others. I don't what to be in the Realm of the Living when the foreigners break down that door. As soon as my soul separates from my body, you will escape. Somehow you will sneak out of this cursed town and somehow you will return to the Duchy. When you return, you will find Oana. Those are my last orders."


"I am ordering you to poison me. I am ordering you to separate my soul from my body. What part of that don't you understand?"

Danka prepared a fatal dose of sedative. There was a barrel of rainwater and a cracked cup with which she could administer it. She held Dalibora's hand while holding the cup to her mouth. It took about a minute for Dalibora's eyes to roll up slightly and her grip to loosen. Danka administered another dose to the woman with the chest wound. She looked at the woman with the head injury. She was unconscious and it was clear she was dying, so Danka did not bother trying to poison her. She glanced again at her dead squad leader.

A loud bang on the door made her jump. She heard shouting in the Kingdom's language and another bang. Dropping her medicine pouch, she rushed up the ladder and pushed open the hatch, just as the main door crashed open. A squad of Blue Moon troops entered the house as Danka exited and moved away from the opening. The course thatch dug into her unprotected skin, but that was the least of her worries. She lay flat as the hatch opened and a man looked both ways to make sure no one was on the roof. Fortunately he did not climb up to check the other side, so Danka stayed hidden. She watched the troops haul out the three corpses and toss them onto the street below.

From her vantage point Danka watched the enemy soldiers leave the house. One soldier marked the door with a piece of chalk to indicate the house had been checked and cleared. Danka crept back towards the hatch. If at all possible, she had to get back inside. She would be spotted on the roof as soon as someone happened to glance in her direction. It turned out all the soldiers had indeed left. She decided to stay in the loft in case anyone came back in and wait for nightfall before attempting to escape.

She looked at the bloodstains on the floor where her companions had died. She mourned the fact their bodies had been tossed outside, to lie in the street until someone came along and loaded them into a garbage wagon. They would not be given proper burials and would not be given mirrors, so they'd have nothing to hold up before the Creator in the Afterlife. As for her husband, and the other doctors, and all of their patients, not even bodies were left, given the force of the explosion and the fire that had destroyed the infirmary. She wondered how the Creator handled such situations.

For the first time, Danka prayed directly to the Destroyer. 'Very well, you've made me your witness. You've denied my desire to die with my companions. You've taken my husband. Now what? If you want me to escape and bear witness, how am I supposed to do that?'

Danka waited in silence for a long time. There was no response. She was beyond exhausted, so there was nothing for her to do except sleep and wait for sunset so she could get out of the house.

She woke up to a world that was pitch black. It was true the house had no lanterns and was abandoned, but surely there would be some light coming in somewhere. She reached around and to her dismay, couldn't find anything to lay her hands on. She had to be in a void. What this the Realm of the Destroyer? Finally light did enter her imagination. So... the Destroyer had finally returned. Hopefully she'd receive instructions concerning what she needed to do next. But the familiar eyes did not appear. Instead, she saw Babáckt Yaga. Her former mistress's eyes stared deep into her soul.

"What have you done?"

"I...I don't understand, Alchemist."

"What have you done?"

"I guess... I guess I survived a battle, Alchemist. Now I need to figure out how to escape and bear witness of what happened here."

"To escape? To bear witness? To bear witness for whom? For the Profane One?"

"Yes, Alchemist. To bear witness for the Profane One."

"And you were foolish enough to think the Profane One would help you..."

"I was foolish enough to think that, Alchemist. That's what I was expecting."

"The Profane One helps no one. The Profane One will not help you. Serving the Profane One is vanity. Didn't I teach you that?"

"Yes, Alchemist."

"And you ignored my teachings. You ended up ignoring everything, didn't you?"

"Yes, Alchemist."

There was a long pause while Babáckt Yaga's eyes bore into Danka. The former Mistress continued:

"Do you really think you deserve to escape? Maybe a Blue Moon impalement hook is where you belong?"

"I don't know what I deserve, Alchemist."

"You don't know what you deserve. Well then... I, not the Destroyer, but I, will give you what you don't deserve. I will guide you to safety. But for you to accept my help, you must obey my instructions."

"Yes, Alchemist?"

"You are to take nothing with you from this cursed kingdom. You are not to carry anything in your hands, nor wear anything on your body. You will need to take off your boots and leave them behind: they're ruined anyway. When you leave this house, you will see a path ahead of you. It won't be lit up or obvious, but you'll know it's there. You will follow that path and not deviate from it. It will guide you out of Aksheriri Ris, guide you across the war zone, and guide you into the Duchy. The path will lead you to food and will lead you around your enemies. Throughout most of your journey, your enemies will be close-by, but they won't see you if you walk along the path precisely at the moment it shows itself. When the path deviates, you'll know you need to sleep."

"That's it, Alchemist? I just need to follow a path?"

"It will be hard at times, because often the path will lead you right out into the open, across fields and over hilltops, even though crowded areas. Part of the purpose of your journey will be to test your courage and your faith. But if you stay on the path and traverse it when it indicates, you will remain in the Realm of the Living and you will fulfill your Path in Life. There's one more detail. You must unbraid your hair before you begin your journey. Until you reach safety, your hair must be loose. Braids are a symbol of honor, and right now you have no honor."

Fearful that Babáckt Yaga's apparition would disappear, Danka undid her braids and fluffed out her hair.

"Now, go to the front door and turn left. Don't crouch or try to hide. Walk with confidence and dignity. Whenever you see the path, keep going."


"Yes Follower Danka?"

"Will I ever see you again?"

"No. The Realm of the Afterlife allows me only one visit to the Realm of the Living. I've just used it on you. Now, like everyone else, I will fade and exist only in memory."

Babáckt Yaga's image disappeared, allowing Danka to see the dim evening light entering through openings in the dwelling's walls. Not knowing what else to do, she exited the front door and turned left, as instructed. Sure enough, in the darkness she could make out a path, a slightly lighter line of dried mud leading towards the city's eastern gate.

She struggled not to crouch or hide, which was very difficult given that she was completely naked in a strange town full of enemies. As she walked, she wondered about her unprotected feet, worried she might step on something sharp or stub her toe. She felt nothing: no rocks, no glass, no metal, no thorns. Wreckage was all around her, but her feet only touched cool smooth dirt.

She had numerous close calls as she walked away from the house. A squad of enemy soldiers crossed right in front of her but did not see her. She crossed a street and no sooner had she passed to the other side, a group of enemy cavalrymen galloped past. She walked right past people who had their backs turned, precisely at the moment they would have seen her had they turned around. After each "close call", she became slightly more confident that she really would be able to simply walk away.

The gate was wide open, to allow a supply caravan to pass through. The guards were too busy checking letters and talking to the drivers to notice a naked woman passing by the wagons on the other side. The path veered off the main road and crossed a meadow. Shortly before daybreak Danka came up to an abandoned village with a functioning well. She was ravenously thirsty, and the water was some of the best she had ever tasted. She left the village and crossed an orchard. All of the trees had been stripped of their fruit except for one, which had a single branch containing some apples. The wanderer feasted and continued her walk. The path lead her towards a ruined manor. Its fields lay abandoned, but there were some carrots and beets growing wild among the weeds. She came across another well inside a once-luxurious courtyard which, in spite of the destruction all around it, remained intact. Danka drank some more water and kept going.

By the end of the day, she had gone so far that Aksheriri Ris was no longer in sight. The Path veered into a ruined house, where most of the roof had collapsed. One room, containing a bed, remained intact. Danka soundly slept, the best night of sleep she had enjoyed for months. When she woke up, she noticed a sealed jar lying next to a wall. She opened it to discover it was full of dried fruit. She ate as much as she could before following the path eastward.

The second day was foggy in the morning and rainy in the afternoon. Her feet were covered in mud and her body was covered in water, but getting wet didn't bother her, since she didn't have to worry about her clothing. She could hear the noise from humans all around and see shadowy figures in the distance, but no one came close enough to recognize her as a naked wandering woman. It turned out to be fortunate that she stuffed herself with dried fruit in the morning, because she did not come across anything else to eat until the day had almost ended. As the sun set, she found several wild berry bushes growing next to an abandoned cottage. After eating, the path led her inside, where another bed was waiting.

She continued walking towards the east, in a journey that became more dreamlike with every passing day. During the entire journey she was crossing land that was completely unfamiliar. She walked along stream banks, across meadows, over hills that gave her a panoramic view of the landscape, and even though a small forest. She dreamt of what the land must have looked like during more peaceful times. Her imagination raced through the past, letting her see what the region looked like when it still was part of the Danubian Kingdom and referred to as Lower Danubia. She saw abandoned churches, some of which still had Danubian-style architecture. With each physical remnant of the past, she was able to visualize how it must have appeared hundreds of years before.

Eight days after escaping from Aksheriri Ris, Danka walked over a grassy hill where a few wild sheep were grazing. Nearby was a derelict manor, and on the other side there was a wrecked peasant village where empty impalement hooks were still hanging on some of the ruined walls. The ground was covered with scattered human bones, which were partially buried, bleached, and very brittle. The people in that spot must have been killed years before, perhaps right at the beginning of the Kingdom's civil war. Without really knowing why, Danka was convinced she was standing in the village where Isauria was born and had spent her childhood. Undoubtedly some of the bones under her feet were from the corpses of Isauria's relatives.

If Danka really was in Isauria's village, then Malénkta-Gordnáckta was just a short distance to the northeast. The imaginary path went over a second grassy hill overlooking both the manor and the village before crossing the road and continuing directly east. Danka was enormously relieved the route did not go north, because in her current condition Malénkta-Gordnáckta was absolutely the last place she wanted to go.

The day after she passed the road that led to the Duchy's border, the tops of the southern Danubian mountains came into sight, to her left. And yet, she was never tempted to turn north in an effort to shorten her time in the Kingdom of the Moon. By the middle of her journey she had complete confidence in the path. As long as she followed it, she was perfectly safe. She passed to the south of the ruined town she searched with Isauria, but when she reached the crest of a hill, she looked down and could see both the distant ruins and the river bordering the Duchy. She was only vaguely aware of the change, but by the final week of her trip she was walking completely in the open. She was naked and unarmed, but the Ancients were protecting her.

When she approached the location where she and Isauria had attacked the loggers, the path finally veered north. It was apparent she would re-enter the Duchy through the abandoned logging camp before proceeding towards the villages. The Ancients had a final test for her before they would allow her to leave the Kingdom of the Moon. She'd have to walk right through the middle of a town, in broad daylight and in plain view of hundreds of foreigners.

When they saw a detached naked woman walking through their town, the locals lined up along the road to stare at the strange sight. They talked among themselves, speculating who she was. Was she a spirit? A ghost? Lilith? A refugee who had gone mad? She couldn't be a mortal in her right mind, because she did not react at all to the murmuring crowd. Only one man approached her, wanting to touch her to see if she was at least a real person. As he raised his hand, she turned around and silently glared at him. Frightened, he backed away.

The crowd followed Danka as she headed towards the border. They stopped when she passed through a ruined church the locals considered cursed. She crested a final hill and made her way towards the river, which was swollen with mountain runoff. She casually swam across and emerged on Danubian soil.

Danka was in no hurry for the trip to end, and it seemed the path accommodated that wish for a few more days. She bathed in cold streams and foraged in the woods, eating berries and mushrooms during the day. At night she slept in the open.

She reached the bone-covered meadow where the Defenders had defeated the Red Moon soldiers nearly a year before. Not even a year, but how long ago that seemed, as though it were a different lifetime. Maybe it was. During those final days Danka's view of herself and her way of thinking transformed. In some ways she went back to being who she had been at the very start of her travels. She certainly did not consider herself a Nymph fighting for the Defenders' militia. Anyhow, she suspected the Defenders no longer existed. Even if some of them had been rescued by the Royal Army, the Grand Duke would have no reason to allow the defeated militia to continue its operations.

The path ended at the largest of the three villages. As she stood in the main plaza, the settlers stared at her, not only because she was naked, but because her hair was loose. She seemed disoriented. The villagers were intimidated to approach her, but even with her disheveled appearance, some of them recognized her. One man remembered Isauria was her apprentice and left to find the girl. A few minutes later Isauria showed up. Like everyone else, she was shocked at her mentor's wild look, but she knew what to do. She led Danka to the bathhouse, bathed her, helped her clean her teeth, and re-braided her hair.

Sitting in her bath, Danka returned to her senses as the surreal dreamy feeling of her journey receded. She found it hard to believe that she had just walked for three weeks, naked, through enemy territory without being caught. And yet, it really happened: she wouldn't be sitting in the bath with her former servant washing her hair had the trip been nothing but a dream. As the reality of the Realm of the Living intruded upon her thoughts, the details of those final horrid hours in Aksheriri Ris invaded her soul and completely pushed aside the pleasant bliss she had felt during her trip. She stared at the edge of her tub and muttered, "I'm a widow. I'm a widow, Apprentice Isauria, and a dishonored one at that, because I didn't bury my husband."

She explained what happened to Ilmátarkt, how she left him in the infirmary, and how, after Dalibora pulled her away, the entire structure blew up. Not only was her husband killed, but the other doctors were killed, along with dozens of injured patients. They were blown to unrecognizable bits and buried under burning timbers.

Isauria surprised Danka with her response, one that seemed to come from a much older person. "You didn't bury your husband because you couldn't; there was nothing to bury. You can't feel guilty about something you had no control over. Your Path in Life was to remain in the Realm of the Living and his Path in Life was destined to end where it did. And since his Path in Life had to end, wasn't it better it ended with a quick explosion than any other way? Doctor Ilmátarkt died the way he would have wanted to die. When his soul separated from his body, he was serving those around him, he was with his crew and the people he cared about. He died instantly, without knowing he was dying. Would you have wanted to see him dying in horrible pain and then have to abandon his body? Would that have been better, Defender Danka?"

"No. It wouldn't have been."

"I'm saying that because I would give anything for my family to have died the way Doctor Ilmátarkt died. Anything."

After a long pause, Danka commented, "Speaking of that, I might have passed through your village, Apprentice Isauria. On my way back."

"Was it just west of the crossroads that lead up to Malénkta-Gordnáckta?"


"And there were sheep pastures, and a manor house, and two grassy hills, and on the other side of one of the hills some stone houses?"


"That was my village."

"I saw what happened there. I guess... looking at it through your perspective... my husband was indeed lucky."

Danka and Isauria could think of nothing more to say at the moment, but the bond between them had strengthened. Each had a much deeper understanding of the other. No longer was Danka the "Mistress" for Isauria, no longer was Isauria the "Servant" for Danka.

* * *

Danka dressed in a new Nymph's skirt and borrowed boots to pay a visit to the village elders. She told them what they already suspected, that the Defenders had been defeated and their expedition had failed. She gave a very short summary of the battle, but commented she would write a detailed report that would provide additional information and could be given to whoever was keeping records of the Defenders' activities. She spent the next three days with Isauria preparing a meticulous account of what happened to the expedition, from the time the militia left their base in the Duchy until the day she escaped. She tried to remember the names and circumstances of everyone she had seen killed or suspected had been killed. The only significant detail she left out was her former squad leader's betrayal. She'd address that situation with Oana herself.

She delivered the completed report to the village elder. When one of his assistants expressed skepticism over her claim that she simply walked away, she responded, "You can believe whatever you want to believe. It makes no difference to me. However, I did witness the battle and, and with the protection of the Ancients, I did manage to return. If you check what I've written against what other witnesses will have to say about the battle, you'll see that everything in the report is the truth."

The meeting ended and Danka was dismissed. Outside she overheard a couple of settlers talking about a column of Royal Guards who had been spotted in the hills to the west moving towards the villages. From what Danka could hear, the Guards were only a few hours away. Danka realized that if she wanted to retrieve her belongings from the Defenders' base camp in the mountains, she'd have to go there immediately. She took one of the Defenders' mules and departed with Isauria without telling anyone in the village where she was going.

Danka and Isauria returned to the base camp for the last time in their lives. There were very few people there, mostly the blacksmith and his assistants and a few workers who remained behind to repair the cabins and prepare them for following winter. The renegade priest was present as well. Danka decided to warn him about the Royal Guards and their pending takeover of the encampment. He called together the small group of Defenders, the paltry remnants of a formerly-impressive militia that had spent years making life miserable for the Kingdom of the Moon's soldiers. Danka summarized the battle and the destruction of the unit. She didn't know whether Commander Sáupeckt was still alive, but suspected he was not. She confirmed the deaths of many others, including the majority of the Nymphs.

Danka's companions gathered up their belongings and fled the encampment. They didn't know how they would be treated by the Royal Guards, but did not want to take the risk of finding out. The Priest returned to his quarters. He calculated that if the Grand Duke's men were occupied talking to him, it would give the others more time to put distance between themselves and the encampment.

Danka entered the cave, lit two lanterns, and went to where she and her husband kept their belongings. She grabbed her bucket, Ilmátarkt's journals and research, and his stash of medicines and alchemy ingredients. She took off the borrowed boots and the Nymph's skirt. She no longer was a Nymph, so she had no right to wear the skirt. She put on the old boots from her bucket, the ones she had worn when she left Rika Héckt-nemát. When Isauria offered Danka a dress, she shook her head.

"I need to perform Public Penance. It's not my Path in Life to get dressed right now."

She told the teenager to take off her Nymph's skirt and put on her trader's outfit. As the girl was changing, Danka put on her penance collar. She told Isauria to go to the armory and take a new crossbow and as many bolts as she could fit in her quiver. Their roles would be reversed: Danka would carry the supplies and Isauria would carry the weapon. When Isauria re-appeared with her new weapon, Danka took a look at her companion's dark hair. She realized it had grown out and now it was long enough to braid. That gave Danka an idea, to see if Isauria could receive an official certificate from the Defenders' Priest, because a certificate would give her full social status in the Duchy as an adult woman.

Danka and Isauria found the Priest in his study, writing some final entries in a journal. He was shocked to see her wearing a Public Penance collar, but she responded simply by telling him the truth, the collar was a disguise so she could travel safely. She asked about a certificate for Isauria.

"Has the girl passed her fifteenth birthday?"

"No. I was planning to serve as her guardian until she was old enough to have her hair braided but, as you can see, that'll be impossible. No one will be around to attest she has the right to be a full citizen when she turns fifteen. So, I'm asking you to do that right now. I need her to accompany me, and she needs to travel as an adult, not a child."

"As you wish. Braid her hair, and I'll prepare the certificate."

Usually the hair-braiding ceremony was a momentous event in a young woman's life, second only to marriage. It was a special time, accompanied by celebration and ceremonies. For Isauria, there would be none of that. Like Danka's marriage, Isauria's hair-braiding would be done out of necessity and in a hurry, without any fanfare or celebration. Danka arranged Isauria's hair, taking her time in an effort to make it look as good as possible. If Isauria couldn't have a ceremony, at least she could have nice braids. When the priest handed her the paper she became a Danubian citizen. Also, she aged a year, because her date of birth had to be moved back for the document to be valid.

The priest asked about documentation concerning Danka's collar. Would she like to have an updated Public Penance certificate? Danka hadn't thought about that, but realized a new certificate would be important. She also realized she had the opportunity to assume a new identity. "I also need an identity document."

The priest smiled mischievously. "Excellent, because I have just what you need, a certificate for a woman from Rika Chorna called Vesna Rogúskt. Very fancy and official-looking."

"And... what happened to the real Vesna Rogúskt?"

"She was the wife of a Defender. Died two years ago in childbirth, just a few days before you showed up. But now he's dead too, and I kept the paper in case someone else needed it. So... it's yours, along with the name."

The two women knelt while the Priest issued a final goodbye blessing. They quietly wondered about the wisdom of being blessed by a man who spent his life "honoring" the Destroyer. Seeing the doubt on their faces, the Priest commented, "Everyone seems to misunderstand the Destroyer. The Realm of the Living needs the Destroyer every bit as much as the Realm of the Living needs the Creator. Both of you are farm-girls, correct? Well, every year you plant a seed and give life to a plant. Then, a few months later, you pull the plant out of the ground and take its life away. Then you put in another seed and start another life. The point is, you can't start the second life until the first one has ended. The Destroyer is cruel, because death is cruel. But that does not make the Destroyer evil, any more than pulling plants out of the ground makes a farmer evil. There is a difference between cruel and evil."

"So... you're not leaving with everyone else?"

"No. I will be executed, undoubtedly, as a heretic and a corrupting influence, but from the beginning I knew that was my Path in Life. I would not have it any other way. And when I hold up my mirror, I will finally have the chance to explain why I did all the things that I did. In the end, I will see the ultimate truth and understand myself. I'm looking forward to that. I'm not scared at all."

Minutes later, the women left the encampment, traveling along a trail that would bypass the villages and the likely route of the approaching Royal Guards. Isauria rode on the mule along with their belongings, while Danka (now to be known to the world as Vesna Rogúskt from Rika Chorna) walked ahead leading the animal by the reins. Ironically, Isauria's social status was now way above that of her former mentor. Although they were both adults, Vesna was collared and Isauria was not. Had she wanted to, Isauria could have made Vesna kneel whenever they spoke to each other.

The path forked, one way going west and the other going east. As much as she would have liked to go east, Vesna knew that she had to return to the western valley. She had to settle Isauria's situation and then find Oana, assuming Oana was still alive.

* * *

The same day that Defender Danka departed with Apprentice Isauria and the mule, the Danubian Royal Army took control of the garrison near the villages. The village elder gave Danka's notes to the commander of the Royal Guards. The Royal commander was impressed with the document's descriptive detail and organization of facts and events. It would make a valuable contribution to the Grand Duke's archive about the militia's failed assault on Aksheriri Ris. Knowing that the settlers could not possibly have written such a document, the Guards inquired about the author. The settlers described a Nymph, incredibly beautiful, who had sought the Destroyer's protection after the battle so she could return. When the Royal Guards asked where she was, no one could find her. She had disappeared without a trace. The villagers neglected to mention anything about Isauria and the apprentice was completely forgotten.

The tragic, bizarre story behind the naked Nymph's return from the Defenders' heroic battle became a favorite topic for discussion and speculation throughout the region. The settlers told each other fantastic tales about her escape and exaggerated her physical beauty. The Royal Guards adopted the villagers' stories and came up with some campfire songs to alleviate their boredom in that wretched, isolated garrison. Within a few months there were many versions floating around both sides of the eastern border about the alluring wanderer's adventures. Men imposed their own fantasies on her and some, including the village elder, claimed to have had sex with her.

By the following year, no one remembered the vanished Nymph as Danka, the wife of Doctor Ilmátarkt and a member of Dalibora's squad. Instead, she became a woman of incredible beauty and mystery, a cursed deliverer of tragedy to the Realm of the Living.

Historian's Note 01: During the 1970s, a group of revisionist historians more closely examined the relationship between the Grand Duke and Commander Sáupeckt to look for clues indicating whether the Sovereign somehow betrayed the militia leader. Questions asked by the revisionists included: 1) Why did the Grand Duke allow an independent militia to guard the southeastern region in the first place, instead of using Royal Guards? 2) Why did the Grand Duke allow Commander Sáupeckt to assault Sumy Ris, if he was convinced the expedition was likely to fail? Would it not have been better to convince the militia leader to not press forward with the project, or try to replace him with a more cautious leader and thus save lives? 3) Is it possible Commander Sáupeckt could have taken Sumy Ris, if he had direct support from the Crown? 4) How much talent did Commander Sáupeckt really have as a military commander? 5) What were the Grand Duke's personal feelings about Commander Sáupeckt and the Defenders?

Let's examine these questions, keeping in mind that communications during the 1750s were unreliable and the Grand Duke did not always have timely and accurate intelligence concerning the situation along the eastern section of the border.

1) Between 1754 and 1764, the Grand Duke's most important priority, far more than anything else, was to permanently secure Hórkustk Ris province and make sure that is was so well protected that neither faction from the rival Kingdom would attempt to invade or launch cross-border raids. Absolutely nothing could be allowed to disrupt the incoming settlers and their new farms, so the Grand Duke stationed every available soldier he could spare to protect the peace of the region. The increased security of Hórkustk Ris province came at the expense of other areas such as the eastern border and the Vice Duchy of Rika Chorna. Given his lack of resources, the Grand Duke was more than happy to allow armed civilians to organize and secure a part of the border his troops could not adequately protect.

2) Our sources indicate that Commander Sáupeckt's rise to power over the Defenders' entire militia caught the Grand Duke by surprise. Because of poor communications, the Royal House was not aware until the spring of 1758 that the guerrilla units had coalesced around a single leader. He was genuinely concerned when he learned about the plan to assault Sumy Ris, but, because of issues of tradition and protocol, was not in a position to convince Commander Sáupeckt to abort the mission. Instead, he provided information and maps to make sure the militia leader knew that Sumy Ris was indefensible. The Royal Army's intelligence, along with Defender Danka's updated map, did not make the militia leader change his mind, but it did make him change his target: to first capture Aksheriri Ris to later use as a base of operations against Sumy Ris.

From what my colleagues and I have seen of contemporary writings and the Grand Duke's memoirs, any deliberate act of deception or betrayal by the Grand Duke over Sumy Ris seems extremely unlikely. The ruler certainly would not have passed up the opportunity to capture the former Danubian capital, if he were convinced it could be defended without straining the resources of the Royal Army in other parts of the Duchy. When the Grand Duke understood the Defenders' operation was destined to proceed, he provided as much support as he could, short of committing troops. Even if the militia troops were defeated, he wanted them to do as much damage as possible to the Kingdom of the Moon factions and further weaken them as a threat against the Royal Army and Hórkustk Ris province. In addition to providing supplies, during the expedition Royal Guards entered the Kingdom of the Moon on three occasions to evacuate wounded and dead Defenders prior to the final evacuation from Aksheriri Ris.

3) Given the Royal Army's experience in 1754, it is certainly possible the capture of Sumy Ris could have been repeated in 1758, but occupying the city and the surrounding region over a prolonged period of time would not have been possible, given the Royal Army's resources at the time. That reality is even more evident today than it was in 1758, because the devastation and depopulation from the civil war in the northern part of the Kingdom of the Moon was much more severe than in the southern part. The Danubians, both the Royal Army and the Defenders, had an inaccurate idea concerning the remaining strength of the two factions, which caused Commander Sáupeckt to badly underestimate the size and strength of the armies shadowing his unit as they moved towards Aksheriri Ris.

4) Commander Sáupeckt's defeat is undoubtedly the favorite classic tale of hubris, tragedy, and partial redemption that seems so well-suited for Danubian story-telling. The fact that he died with a crossbow in his hands while recklessly confronting an entire squad of Red Moon musketeers so the last of his men could scramble over some walls to join the Grand Duke's army assured his place as a hero instead of a villain in Danubian lore. Whatever else he may have been, he was no coward, although I suspect he used the enemy squad to commit suicide. But tragedy aside, was Commander Sáupeckt a good military leader? He was, but for company-sized tactical operations, not long-term strategic operations. His rise to power within the militia was the direct result of a single battle, which in turn was the result of the secret sling-bombs supplied to him by Defender Danka. In other words, had Danka not provided the bomb design to her commander, he would not have had the prestige to take control of the Defenders, and the ill-fated campaign against Sumy Ris would not have happened.

5) The Grand Duke viewed Commander Sáupeckt no differently than he viewed any other subject with charisma and talent, by asking: How can this person be useful to me? If the militia leader had a realistic chance of taking Sumy Ris, the Grand Duke would have been happy to let him claim most of the glory of victory, knowing that he would eventually consolidate control over the new territory through patience, co-opting of supporters, and cunning.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Historian's Note 02: The Army of the Blue Moon defeated the rival faction, seized control of Aksheriri Ris, and held it from June 1758 through October of the same year. During those months Blue Moon troops launched raids against Sumy Ris and other previously safe towns within the Lord of the Red Moon's traditional area of control. The Lord of the Red Moon's men eventually retook the city, but lost control of it again at the beginning of 1759. The location changed hands a total of six times during the final phase of the Kingdom of the Moon's civil war and by 1764 not a single structure remained standing. The Ottoman Sultan ordered a mosque built on the hilltop in 1770, but that building was destroyed exactly a century later when the former Kingdom of the Moon's territory became an Austrian protectorate. After World War II a French casino developer purchased the entire hill, demolished all remaining ruins and archeological sites, and built the Emerald City resort, which continues to occupy the site today.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

End of part 8

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