Kyva rode across the ridge and stared in amazement at the view beyond. Three days out from the warband, and this was the first real green she’d seen. Not just withered scrub clinging to the banks of a dried out stream, or the tops of a few diminished turnips growing from cracked dirt, but fields of new crops divided by irrigation ditches. She could smell sap and spring water, could feel a cool breeze on her cheek.
One hand resting on her sword, she nudged Thunderer into a trot, down toward those fields. A place like this ought to belong to one of the warlords, or at least be controlled by local bandits, but none of the villagers working those miraculous fields carried a weapon better than a shovel. Duke Lorkas would be pleased.
When they reached one of the channels, Thunderer lowered his head to drink. Kyva didn’t urge him on. Instead, she waited in the saddle while the locals laid down their tools and came to her, their expressions a mix of fearful, curious, and determined.
“I’ve come from the army of Duke Lorkas,” she declared before anyone could ask. “Your village is subject to him.”
Not that there was much of a village; a few ramshackle shelters amid ground darkened by old ashes. Someone had raided this place, but not recently or those crops would be gone.
“My lord will protect you, in exchange for certain tithes.”
“We can’t afford to pay,” said a skinny man with a skinny dog at his heel. “All our homes burned down, we’re still rebuilding.”
“You can afford more than most around here.” Kyva pointed at the channel. “How come you have water? The deepest wells in these parts barely draw mud.”
“Please.” The man sank to his knees and the others did the same. “We don’t know what miracle made the water happen. If your lord forces us to give up our food and we have to grow more, maybe it will dry up like the rest of the empire.”
“You have no idea how the world works, do you?” Kyva shook her head. “My lord has reunited this part of the empire. You owe him.”
“We were told that this land belonged to Duchess Eras. We were told the same about Duke Vashi.”
“Eras is dead and Vashi will join her soon enough.” Kyva tapped the pommel of her sword. “This tells you where your fealty is due.”
The skinny man stared at the weapon, then got to his feet.
“If might makes right, prove your strength,” he said. “I’ll fight you, and if you win, then the others will do as you say, but if I win, then, then, then…”
The others whispered to each other in alarm. Someone tried to pull him back down to his knees, but he stood staring at Kyva, proud despite his rags and his sunken cheeks.
Kyva took a deep breath. No dust or dryness scratched at her throat. This place really was a miracle, and this idiot thought that the best thing he could do for it was die.
“Don’t be a fool.” She tightened her grip on her sword, just in case. She’d been hardened by years of bitter war, while he was some skinny peasant. She’d make it quick and merciful, but she would damn well defend herself.
“I will, I’ll fight you.”
He grabbed a spade and raised it like a spear. Everything about him, from his shaking voice to his trembling arms, said that he knew he would lose, but still he was trying to stop her. The mangy dog had stepped up next to him, growling through bared teeth. Kyva couldn’t help admiring them and the others rising to their feet, a desperate community grabbing tools to take her on. She almost wanted them to catch her before she galloped away, to overwhelm her with sheer numbers. But Thunderer was fast and Kyva was deadly. It wouldn’t happen.
Should she pretend she never saw them? It wouldn’t be the first time she’d lied to Duke Lorkas, and these people deserved a chance.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “If you don’t accept Duke Lorkas, it’ll just be someone else. Vashi, maybe. Some other thug fighting over scraps of empire. You’re better accepting Lorkas now than having them bring the fight here.”
“You could protect us.”
Did he know how desperate that idea was? She’d have to hide the trails to this place, distract foragers who came close, pick off any scout who somehow found them. It would be as impossible as hiding the sun in a clear sky.
As a skinny farmer standing up to her.
As water in this parched place.
Chainmail jingling, Kyva dismounted and dipped a hand in the irrigation channel. Real water washed her hand. Flowing water, here in the borderlands, where everything was meant to be dead. Would Duke Lorkas appreciate the miracle, or would he just think about how it could power his conquests? She didn’t have to think about the answer.
Kyva sighed. Sooner or later, these wars were going to kill her. Might as well make that death worthwhile.
“Go back to the army,” she said to Thunderer, patting him on the flank. “You shouldn’t stay to die here with me.”
The horse just snorted, then dipped his nose back into the water. Nothing was going to drive him from this place.
This is the third and final story in a short series. You can find the first, “Picking the Bones of Hope”, over here, and the second, “What Miracles Remain”, over here.
If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, which is set in the same world and explores our troubled relationship with history and tradition. You can buy it at these links:
Luna Press for physical books