Welcome to a nation not united but divided into eight separate realms—known as Houses. Though these Houses operate independently, offer their own currency, and follow their own cultures/laws—there is one sovereign ruler who instills peace among the provinces. Known as Archduke Sidling the Vindicator, he resides in House of Kings, which is situated conveniently in the center of the country. His purpose is to remain neutral in territory skirmishes but provide swift council and retribution should any vacuum of power become too great.
The Vindicator’s ruling has been an uneventful one, none daring to oppose him in his prime. However, his days in the sun are quickly waning as the man has reached the breach of his mortality. Immobilized upon his bed, no heirs or family to surround him, the Archduke is unable to stop any insurgents from the south. Namely, Lord Avispa.
An ambitious man, Lord Avispa became ruler of the House of Hornets when he was a teenager. From early on Avispa envied the Archduke, believing he could do better for Coldiay. The young man also believed his people deserved more, stuck in the hot stinking marshes—very few rose to wealth or success. Resentment festered within Avispa for years, until the birth of his infant son. When the Lord first set eyes upon his boy, Zanbur, he saw a dawning for House of Hornets. He saw a bright future, a future with an impressive title…like Archduke. From that point on, Avispa began cultivating a militaristic society for his people. Once every boy reached a certain age, he was sent to training camps and became a Hornet Soldier. With news that the current Archduke was dying, Avispa slowly began to spread his territory and conquered neighboring lands. Becoming more and more bold (and more and more powerful), he struck up alliances with similar “disadvantaged” Houses and created enemies with those who still followed the sovereignty of Archduke Sidling.
The House of Hunters, was of the latter, and it was for this reason that Avispa sent a full garrison to sack and exterminate the House of Hunters.
Ordinarily, taking on an entire House would be quite a feat—but you should know that House of Hunters is considerably smaller than the others. We sit high in the Skyward Mountains, the tallest and longest mountain range in Coldiay. A reclusive group, we got our name because our predecessors where ingenious trackers and warriors. In fact, it was House of Hunters who first invented and distributed archery. We also became skilled horsemen, scaling steep ridges in pursuit of our prey.
Capturing House of Hunters is an obvious move. My father, Lord Varlion didn’t swear allegiance to Avispa, but he didn’t denounce Avispa either. He remained purposefully silent. That’s a potential opportunity or threat for Avispa, one he’d be foolish to ignore. Like I stated before, House of Hunters is small but filled with warriors. Enslaving or allying with our people would be beneficial for Avispa’s conquest. Plus, House of Hunters is the first major outpost on the Northern Mountain Pass, leading to other realms such as the expansive House of Shadows and the wealthy House of Dragons.
I must give credit where credit is due, Avispa did plan this attack rather splendidly. It just so happens that my father and older brother are out riding in the high tundra right now, leaving me as the only royal on castle grounds.
I was reading in the library, anticipating going hunting with my stallion Nightsbane that evening. That’s when I heard the horns blowing from atop Watcher’s Hill, a tower about half a mile from the castle. Instantly forgetting my book, I run to the window and gaze into the valley. Yes, I see now what the sentinels noticed.
From the south leaks forth an ominous coil of smoke. Trying to remain calm, I consider that it could be a couple things. One, it’s merely a forest fire, two, an enemy, or three, a trick of the light.
It wasn’t until I reached the courtyard that I heard distant drums. So, definitely not a wildfire or bad lighting.
Seeing as my father and brother are not within the castle boundaries, that makes me acting Lord of the House. Some might think that would intimidate me, but that is not so. In House of Hunters we have an unprecedented equality of gender. Other Houses consider a woman’s best capacity to be as decoration or heir-makers. In our society, a huntress is every bit as effective as a hunter and we’ve made an effort to study forms of combat best suited for the female and male physiology. Therefore, I’ve handled my fair share of skirmishes and have great confidence leading others.
The Captain of the Guard approaches. An older man with a grizzled appearance, Captain Roan taught me how to fight and how to ride. In fact, his horse, now retired, is my stallion’s dam.
He bows his head, hand tapping nervously on the hilt of his sword.
“Just spoke with the sentinels, my lady. Their spyglass has identified the banner of House of Hornets. I know you don’t have the same political rearing as your brother, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear it’s Avispa knocking on our doors so imprudently.”
I nod. Roan is right. As the second-born, I’ve been lucky enough to skip out on the mind-numbing hours of history and governance laws—unlike Lyrron, my brother. Still, I make a point to be somewhat involved in current matters and have heard the rumors that Hornets has teamed up with Marauders, Mystics, and Winter.
It’s a well-known fact that House of Hornets have always been the most ruthless and treacherous of Houses. Their number one agenda is always their own. If Avispa gained the Archduke title, it would certainly send Coldiay into a Dark Age. The delicate balance that has been in place for millennia, would be skewed.
A balance created and dictated by Coldiay’s one true king of ancient times, High King Rune the Infinite. Breaking the agreement would be spitting upon ancestors, tradition, and the High King’s design itself.
House of Dragons and House of Shadows vocally stated their staunch loyalty to Archduke Sidling. My father, as I’ve mentioned, said nothing. This was because he thought Avispa unworthy of any sort of thought. Not strong enough to be a threat, not strong enough to be an ally. To Varlion, Avispa’s popularity was sure to fizzle out and there wasn’t a need to intervene. Father was steadfast that House of Hornets would never dare ascend our mountain peaks and challenge our warrior class.
Clearly, he was wrong.
“What needs doing, Roan?” I ask as we hurry to the armory.
“I’ve taken the liberty of setting up our archers, and a courier has been sent after Lord Varlion and Lyrron the Decisive. We have a few hours still, they haven’t yet crossed Mare’s Tail. But we should evacuate the vulnerable ones—elderly and youths.”
“Yes, I agree. Any guess on how many men Avispa sent us?”
Roan stops mid-stride, eyes cast to the ground.
I eye him warily, “Seems you were hoping I wouldn’t ask that, dear teacher.”
He affectionately touches my hair, like he would his own daughter, “My best pupil, reading her contemporaries like a book—as she was taught. Aye, it’s true, I hoped that question would not leave your mouth. You know as well as I numbers only mean so much when it comes to warfare. Skill and intelligent tactics have equal place with quantity of swords. And our location is fortuitous, it was no mistake that our ancestors settled in this particular geography. Nestled high in the mountains, we can literally come down on our enemies and their movements are no secret to us.”
“But?” I prompt.
“But I’ve never seen such a horde. My lady, he’s brought over ten thousand. Avispa must feel little value in his men, for they vary in age dramatically. Why, I see some as better grandfathers and others as better stable boys among their ranks! He’s set them to lighting Fauve Forest on fire, not caring if they survive it themselves. That’s where the smoke is coming from. At first, I figured it was their campfire, and maybe part of it is—but the sentinels saw for themselves soldiers turning the pines ablaze. Avispa means to smoke us out like a fox in her den.”
At mention of foxes, I lightly touch the tattoo etched into my wrist. A three-headed fox with a trinity of tails. Upon each head rests a laurel, indicating my royal blood. The two outer heads look in opposite directions, one to the left and the other to the right. But the center head stares directly at me, in its mouth it holds a single arrow. Underneath the fox’s paws is my name scrawled in delicate black letters, Hella the Pursuing.
Foxes are sacred within House of Hunters, and they adorn our crest. There’s an old legend that when the first great Lord Birsham scouted for a place to build Hunter’s Castle, he came across a three-headed fox with three tails. The creature was a forest spirit, mythic and immortal to these parts. It is said that the fox could read minds…well, souls, rather. It could understand what was in a person’s heart. Looking into Birsham’s soul, the fox saw a heart much like his own. The fox then met Birsham’s people, a nomadic group at the time, expats of the House of Kings. Again, the three-headed fox found familiarity with these migrants.
Birsham asked the forest spirit if it would permit his people to live in its forests and mountains. The fox agreed and blessed the troupe. It did have one condition, however. “This House of Hunters and those of my kin are brethren. Brethren should not hunt brethren. Keep my children, the fox, as hallowed in your dens—and you shall always be welcome in mine.”
In further reverence to the fox spirit, Lord Birsham changed his epithet from Birsham the Surveyor to Birsham the Fox-hearted.
Hence, killing a fox, even if it has completely decimated one’s chicken coop, is a crime punishable by death. Luckily, this rarely happens. All fox encounters are considered good omens. House of Hunters feels a lot of sentimentality and pride with being associated with the fox, and so we respect our brethren accordingly.
With such a threat upon our homeland, I wonder where the three-headed fox is. If he ever existed. Would the ancient forest spirit come to our aid? Or has he slipped away, never to be heard from again?
I snap back from my reverie. Though his celestial help would be much appreciated, it seems foolish to place hope in a story told to children.
“Well, let us not despair yet. My father should be here soon—he’ll know what to do. In the meantime, we must do all that we can. Continue your duties here, Captain, and I’ll go round up the weaker villagers. We still have close ties with House of Shadows, so worst case scenario we send them up Northern Mountain Pass to stay with Lord Herndon for a while.”
“Excellent, my lady. I’ll update your father when he gets here. Please take a hunter with you though, for good measure.”
At my beckoning, a groom comes racing up with my horse in tow. Nightsbane, an ebony stallion about 17 hands high, is my closest companion. Having raised him from a colt, myself a youngster then too—our bond is unbreakable. His long glossy mane has been pragmatically braided into perfect bundles, the feathers adorning his powerful hooves immaculately trimmed. Nightsbane is the prestige sire of our stables, and the smartest horse I’ve ever met. Another groom hands me my amethyst riding cloak (House of Hunters’ royal color) and I expertly swing into the saddle.
“Lorna! Chalon!” I call out to two hunters preparing their own horses, “You come with me to the village. Help me evacuate the children and elderly, as well as check-in on the village guard.”
“Aye, your ladyship!”
It warms my heart to see my people responding so well to our predicament. By the time Lorna, Chalon, and I reach the village they have already set about organizing who should evacuate and who should stay on. Upon seeing me, cheers rise from the masses and swords lift high in the air.
A man whom I recognize to be the village chief comes over to me. He was selected by the common people and approved by my father to run the day-to-day needs of the village. He’s a trusted man, called Praestus.
He bows low, a little too low, which causes me to smile—though I fight against it.
“Good afternoon, my lady. Another fine day in the village of Hunters, eh?”
I laugh, “Oh, I don’t know Praestus, I’ve certainly had better. I’m here to bring those deemed too vulnerable to fight into the Northern Pass. They can make camp up there until all of this is over.”
Praestus sends a concerned glance, “And what if this is over not in our favor?”
“Then the next step is to seek asylum at House of Shadows. Lord Herndon is a family friend, he wouldn’t send allies such as us away,” I reply evenly.
“And then what?” Praestus prods again.
Truthfully, I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I was still optimistic (naively or not) that we’d be able to send the Hornets back to their swamps in humiliation. In my opinion, retreating to Herndon was unlikely.
I address the group of villagers that have quietly gathered around us.
“Last I heard, my father has been summoned from his ride with my brother to return to our defenses. It is no secret that Lord Avispa is the one laying siege upon us, burning our beloved Fauve Forest. It is also no secret that he brings thousands.”
I quote good Roan, “But wars are not won with numbers alone. There is value in determination, strategy, and skill of hand. As I understand it, House of Hunters is all of those things and more.”
Applause erupts from the crowd at that.
“Still,” I hold up a hand and a hush hovers over them.
“Still, we must gauge bravado with caution. That is why we’re evacuating those of you who are too young, too sick, too old, or too whatever else to fight. I shall be the one to lead you into the Northern Pass,” I exchange a look with Praestus, “we’ll determine what to do from then. Just like on a hunt, one does not run through the forest clamoring about. One takes measured, purposeful steps. Remember it is Lord Varlion who leads this House. Place faith in him, faith in House of Hunters, and faith in King Rune’s benevolent will. If we do that, we can never lose.”
Speech ended; I feel more satisfaction in the nod granted to me from Praestus, than the shouts and ovations of the villagers.
“Well done, my lady,” Lorna says with a grin.
“Yes,” Chalon adds, “Your speaking skills are reminiscent that of your father.”
I shrug, “I hope I haven’t disillusioned them. But it’s early yet, why shouldn’t we encourage? Now, let’s get a move on. The afternoon is quickly turning to evening and I’d like the villagers to be in the pass by night.”
With Lorna at the head of the train, Chalon in the middle, and me bringing up the rear—we make our slow ascent up the mountainside and into the Northern Pass. Our villagers brought only what they need: food and water that can last the next two weeks, minimal clothing for any kind of weather, and of course, their bows. Some livestock and horses are brought along, though most are being used to pull carts, wagons, and heavy loads. Good mothers with young children and babies keep watch over everyone. None is a better delegator and leader than a mother in crisis.
As we pass Hunter’s Castle, I halt Nightsbane and glance over my shoulder. Though the light is fading, I can see the glinting of armor and archer’s arrowheads from the fortress’s stronghold. Further to the south, the fire the Hornets have spread is now clearly in view. They are close, probably at the bank of Mare’s Tail River. If I listen close enough, I can almost hear the clattering of their voices echoing through the mountains.
A loud whinny pierces the air, but I immediately recognize the horse’s cry. It belongs to Shortsight, my father’s white stallion. Nightsbane whinnies back a greeting as the pale shape gallops closer into view. It’s not long before Father pulls Shortsight to a stop beside me, Lyrron right behind him. I am grateful to see both of their faces. I signal Chalon and Lorna to continue forward.
“See what happens when you leave the castle for an hour Father? The whole kingdom falls apart,” I quip in a light-hearted way, though our situation is far from light-hearted.
“Funny, because when I stay in all anyone ever says to me is that I should get out more. Really, there’s no winning when you’re a Lord, I must say.”
“You should probably look into retirement then. It’s not like lordship is a lifelong occupation or anything,” Lyrron adds sardonically.
The three of us grin at each other, reveling in our common family dynamic. Father’s smile fades first as he notes the villagers ascending the mountainside.
“Composed of the elderly, young and motherly I assume?”
“Yes, and only the necessities were brought with them. The plan is to camp in the Northern Mountain Pass, retreating to House of Shadows should it come to it.”
“Good thinking, little sister,” Lyrron murmurs softly.
“Praestus is running quite the orderly party below, though I imagine he could use some enforcements. If only for peace of mind.”
Father sighs, “I’m afraid I don’t have much of that to give him. I’m not going to lie to you daughter, it doesn’t look good. I spoke with my advisors and nobles at length…I think we ought to seek out Herndon as soon as possible.”
My eyes widen, “Father, blades haven’t even clashed yet! It’s not the first time we’ve been outnumbered. If we simply—”
“When you reach the castle, tell Lord Herndon I’m sorry for being so stubborn…for not listening…” he looks at the horizon sadly, “…for not seeing how venomous Avispa is. Had I believed his words would become deeds, this might have been prevented. Especially after all of the insistence from Herndon…I should’ve listened.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Father,” Lyrron says. “Even if Herndon was right to fear Avispa, he at least didn’t think the man would attack us this soon, and with this many.”
“Yet,” Father’s expression is strange and unreadable, “my biggest regret is what this war will do to my children. My son will fly into a sure defeat, either to be captured or killed. Then there’s my daughter, barely reached her second decade of life, and upon her shoulders shall rest the burden of duty. Her Ladyship Hella the Pursuing, House of Hunters.”
I’ve hardly ever seen my father cry. But now tears glisten his eyes and run down his cheeks. Absolute terror strikes me then, a terror I’ve never experienced before. I feel as though reality itself is fractured. A part of me understood what he was trying to say, the other part of me refused to believe it.
My eyes flash frantically between them, “W-what are you talking about? What do you mean her Ladyship? What about you? Both of you! Surely you will win, at the very least you’ll meet us at House of Shadows?”
My disbelief and fear lashes into anger and despair, “How can you give up like this? You’re the ones who taught me to be brave, to abhor cowardice. What is this? Why must you die?”
Father grips my shoulders tightly, “Understand that the odds are not with us. Lyrron and I go to sacrifice ourselves for the House we love so dearly—and for the young girl who’s blessed our lives. We die so that you and the others might have a chance, a good head-start into House of Shadows. Hopefully the enemy doesn’t know you exist and won’t follow you. With the Lord and heir gone, who should notice the valiant young Lady escaping to the north?”
“But know this; even in our defeat, in our displacement, in our exile—House of Hunters is far from dead. We live on, so long as you do. You, Hella, you shall lead us out of these dark times,” he chuckles grimly, “I’ve known you were bound for greatness the first time I saw you ride a horse. The first time I watched you practice with those dual swords of yours. The first time I heard you address an assembly.”
Lyrron cracks a lopsided grin, “If anyone is up for the task, it would be you.”
The three of us sit in silence. Gazing wistfully at the scenery encompassing us, gazing wistfully at the family members before us—memorizing every line, divot, shade, curve, and countenance. All that I have known before will very soon no longer be mine—or at least never as it was.
The sun has started to set, casting the snow-capped peaks aglow in gold. Shadows grow in the deep valleys, and the pine and aspen trees that surround bustle in a brisk springtime breeze. I close my eyes and listen as Mare’s Tail stumbles and crashes over river rocks and through its bends.
“I can’t imagine life without you two,” I manage to choke out, hot tears rushing down my face, “I hope you know how much I love you. You are two of the greatest men I know and ever will know.”
They simultaneously wrap an arm around me, squeezing me tight. Father smells like hay and leather, Lyrron like pine and fresh air. I inhale their essence deeply, savoring the scent, holding desperately to their memory.
I watch in a strange sort of detachment as the pair returns to the castle, sure to meet some sort of end. The sun has sunk lower, its last tendrils barely lighting the sky behind the peaks.
Drawing one of my swords, I raise it high into the air, lifting my chin haughtily. A long, defiant cry bellows from my throat, one that is strong and loud and echoes for what seems like an age. As the cry carries, birds quiet, the wind stops, and the whole world holds its breath.
My cry is for my people. For comrades and relationships that will never meet in this existence again. My cry is for my knights and warriors, who give up their lives for what is now my crown. But mostly, selfishly, my cry is for my father and brother. For the only family I have ever known that has slipped away, right before my eyes.
All that remains is an almost impossible legacy to live up to.
Night has come, lanterns and torches are lit, showing the faint silhouette of the castle. I hear the drawbridge being lowered and pounding hooves as Father leads the cavalry to meet our foe. By Captain Roan’s command, a volley of flame-tipped arrows descend from the turrets and into the dark. Stray arrows infiltrate the forest, adding to House of Hornet’s blazes.
A bleakness gathers and numbs me. I sit on my horse dumbly as sounds of battle and death puncture my ears. For the second time today, I wish the three-headed fox were real. I wish he would appear and rescue us.
“Where are you?” I whisper into the nothingness, “Don’t you care for your brethren anymore?”
Eventually, I turn Nightsbane back up the steep slope. My people cannot see their Lady cry, and so I bottle up my sorrow. I will not show weakness. I will not show how they have beaten me. I will not give Avispa that pleasure. I will be strong. I am alone now.
Fire extinguishes my home and smoke muddles my thoughts.