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The Toadstool War [Original Fiction]

Discussion in 'User Fiction' started by JMHthe3rd, Jun 9, 2015.

  1. Threadmark: Table of Contents
    This started as fiction related to the Golden Horde CYOA, but the story and characters are my creation. Comments and criticism are welcome and appreciated.

    The Toadstool War

    A young khan with visions leads his horde to a frozen wasteland. What secrets of the past will he uncover?

    [​IMG]
    Jungso Husun Khan
    Khan of the Husun Horde
    Age: 21

    [​IMG]
    Jaliqui Husun
    Twin sister to Jungso Khan, Commander of the Baavgai Moon Bear Cavalry
    Age: 21

    [​IMG]
    Maral Husun
    Half-sister to Jungso Khan, Commander of the Windy Zuu Light Cavalry
    Age: 16

    [​IMG]
    Chambui Cetama-Xangai
    Jaliqui's lover, second in command to the Baavgai Moon Bear Cavalry
    Age: 22

    [​IMG]
    Arasen Usun Khan
    Khan of the Usun Horde, cousin and sworn enemy to Jungso Khan
    Age: 26

    Chapter One: In Which Maral and Jaliqui Encounter the Bog Men
    Chapter Two: In Which Maral Dreams of the Toadstool
    Chapter Three: In Which Jaliqui and Chambui Go on a Raid
     
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2015
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  2. Threadmark: Chapter One: In Which Maral and Jaliqui Encounter the Bog Men
    Chapter One: In Which Maral and Jaliqui Encounter the Bog Men
    From the camps the two rode an hour east. White morning fog embraced them in languid sheets. Cold nipped at Maral's nose and cheeks. Her breath misted.

    They tied Boo-Boo to a dead oak. The moon bear cried piteously, so they fed him raw steak before entering the wetland on foot.

    Even frozen, the bog stank of brimstone. As she and Jaliqui stalked through snow and wilted grass, they passed iced-over pools under which suspended great shadowy forms grasping upwards in petrified death throes. Some were like boars, except too big and with scales. Some looked too much like people.

    From somewhere ahead came faint, rolling titters that reminded Maral of cicadas--absurd, in this climate. The noise stopped, then started again. Jaliqui peered around but seemed unconcerned. Maral missed having that confidence.

    After a short while, Jaliqui squatted. She slowly pointed and whispered, "There."

    Maral had to turn her head too far to see. Her left side was her blind side. She had to get used to that.

    The animal was like a hare with small antlers. It hopped lazily between two mounds of dead weeds and nibbled at a speck of mud. A twenty yard shot.

    Carefully, Maral slid her recurve bow from the leather scabbard across her back. She drew an arrow from the quiver hanging from her belt and nocked it to the string. Though of a low draw-weight, it was master crafted, and the bamboo and horn yielded silently as she pulled back with her thumb ring. The critter sniffed snow, oblivious.

    Jaliqui leaned close until their fur hats touched. "Wait until it moves. And remember what we talked about: use your third eye."

    Maral nodded. While her sister was arguably not the best archer in the clan, at twenty-one she had bow-killed over fifty men and led who knows how many hunts. Still, the advice seemed bullshit. If you have one eye, you have one eye; imagining a mystical replacement won't grant depth perception.

    But Maral was sick of being a half-blind cripple, and while she had proved far too blade-shy to relearn sword fighting, she vowed she will reclaim competence with a bow.

    And so she watched as the hare dug through a patch of snow. With two eyes, she had gotten by on instinct: track and shoot. Now, she had to think to calculate distance and trajectory.

    The cicadas waxed, and the hare hopped. Maral released. The string slapped her bracer. The shaft overshot by five feet and arced into fog.

    Maral groaned. She almost threw her bow into the snow. "I used to be able to make that shot at three times the range."

    Jaliqui hugged an arm across Maral's shoulders. Maral could feel her wiry strength flex through hide and fur.

    "Be patient, little sister," Jaliqui said. "You'll get better."

    "I may get better, but I'll never be good. Not like before."

    Their faces so close, Maral could see the workings behind Jaliqui's brown eyes as she wracked her brain for something else positive to say. That it took so long told Maral all she needed to know.

    "No," Jaliqui said finally, "but you don't need to be a master archer. You're not Dugar the Last. You're royalty in a fifty-thousand strong horde. We're family. We look out for each other."

    Maral's cheeks burned against the crisp air. She tugged away from her sister's embrace and paced through dead grass and snow. She waved her bow as she spoke.

    "You wouldn't be able to stand this if this happened to you. Arasel's left me too skittish to hold a sword, too blind to shoot straight. I'm useless. I'm not . . . I'm not even pretty anymore! Boys avoid me. Even Shiggi!"

    Hands on hips, Jaliqui laughed. For a heartbeat Maral wanted to shoot her, but she'd just miss.

    "You treat Shiggi like shit," her sister said, "so little wonder. But no, neither he nor anyone thinks you're anything other than adorable. Even I think you're prettier than me, if it makes you feel better."

    Maral nearly protested, but decided it might be true. Or had been, anyway. Jaliqui spurned all men's advances, but no one needed to ask why they still tried: she was beautiful with smooth teak skin and a sleek, athletic body. But Maral was more. Maral was exotic. Her mother was Serjan and had bequeathed her ginger hair, a milky white complexion and baby blue eyes as clear as the sky--of which only one was left.

    The cicadas ceased. To make a point, Maral lifted her red leather eyepatch.

    Jaliqui tried not to flinch, but then sighed. "All right, the empty socket's pretty gross. If you hate the patch so much, we can talk to Jungso when we get back. He can get one of the jewelers to make you a golden eye. Or maybe a silver one. Or how about a sapphire, if we could find one big enough . . ."

    "Jungso's too busy with that old foreign priest," Maral said, kicking at a chink in the ice. The taps echoed in the fog. "I mean, I'm glad Youta saved him, but look where he's led us? We should be hunting down Arasel, not chasing dreams to the top of the world."

    "What can we do?" Jaliqui said. "He's surrounded himself with fools. He hardly ever sees us anymore. But at the end of the day, he's not only our brother, but our Khan." She smirked and looked away. "Remember, I was born not a quarter hour before him. If I had a cock in my trousers, I'd be leading this horde right now. And let me tell you, I wouldn't put up with all this 'vision quest' mumbo-jumbo. The men think this country's cursed. They're growing restless."

    Words almost treasonous, but undeniable. Indeed, this was a strange, unclean land. And though Maral had told no one, she had been getting dreams too. Terrible nightmares that upon waking always slithered from memory.

    "Hopefully," Jaliqui continued, "Jungso will find some holy stones or magic beans or whatever and we can finally--" She slapped the side of her neck and tugged away a thin wooden splinter. It was a finger long with a tip smeared in dark goo.

    Maral ducked and scanned the white fog. Jaliqui had already drawn her saber and ran shouting towards where the dart shot from. The man leaped out like a phantom. Squat, lumpy and dressed in an animal loincloth, he wielded in one hand a bamboo stick and in the other a big flint knife. Jaliqui's slashed him across the chest and he fell screaming.

    Two more closed from opposite sides, one fat, one scrawny, both ape-hairy. They looked to their fallen friend before stopping and eyeing the two women. Apprehension shone in their bearded piggy faces. They gripped ugly stone clubs.

    Jaliqui raised her curved sword in a guard position and, keeping both in sight, back-stepped close to Maral. Jaliqui's face snarled, but the blade waved uncertainly in her hand. She wobbled on her feet.

    Aside from her bow, Maral's only weapon was a small dagger in her boot. But at ten yards even she should be able to hit the fat one. She pulled an arrow from her quiver.

    A bestial roar thundered through the air. Boo-Boo. Boo-Boo in pain. Jaliqui turned and nearly slipped in the ice. The scrawny man hurled a rock with his free hand. It cracked against the back of her fur hat, and she collapsed.

    Maral nocked and drew, but the fat man was already charging, already upon her. Her shot flew wild. His club swiped viciously, the stone head cracking her bow in two. She tripped and fell backwards into the snow.

    The fat man's growl revealed a crooked, brown maw. His drooped, lopsided eyes leered from a face deformed by boils. Laying on her back, Maral tried to scurry away. He grabbed at her head and tugged off her cap, spilling loose her long red hair. For a moment the fat man stood over her, blinking in bewilderment. Maral snatched out her dagger and plunged the curved blade into his flabby gut.

    He howled and punched her cheek. Her head plowed into snow. Stars flashed. In a dizzy undersea world she found herself crawling and searching as the monster screamed behind her. A hand grabbed her boot. She kicked at it.

    Somewhere, another Boo-Boo cry.

    Maral scampered across the snow on all fours, the quiver at her belt catching on the earth. The right side of her face ached. Her brain bobbed loose in her skull.

    Jaliqui lay only a few feet away, her saber by her hand. But the skinny man was already standing astride her, barking curses in a savage tongue. Maral crawled over and gripped the hilt. The scrawny man stomped down on the sword.

    But ice is slippery. Maral tilted the blade up and pulled with all her might, slicing open his moccasined sole as she drew the weapon free. He tumbled back yowling.

    Behind her, the fat man was doubled over yet still lurching after her as he clutched his skewered belly. He glared with animal hatred. He waved his club one-handed.

    Maral rose unsteadily to her feet. She felt faint, and sudden worry about Jaliqui threatened to overtake her. But she remembered her years of training and stilled her soul. Though the saber was a little heavier than she was used to, it was balanced and slender. She stamped forward and extended with a quick slash. The fat man's fingers flew. The club fell from a gushing paw.

    He shrieked at his mutilation. She sidestepped and aimed another cut. He flopped into the snow, neck spewing.

    Afraid the scrawny man might slip into her blind spot, she twirled around, the movement making her sick. She needn't have worried. He stared crazy-eyed at the blood-soaked saber. Maral raised the blade and bared her teeth. He ran away limping.

    Maral was about to reach for the bow strapped to Jaliqui's back when the man screamed. She looked up in time to see him land on the ground, half ripped in two, his viscera splattered as if in a messy sacrifice. The hulking shape of Boo-Boo sauntered out of the fog. A wound bled from the moon bear's side. A snapped rope dragged from his reins.

    He spotted Jaliqui and raced over to sniff her. He moaned sadly. Maral bent over, vomited and, after wiping her mouth and spitting, knelt by her sister's side. She was alive and breathing more or less regularly, but she wouldn't wake. Maral prayed to Eju that the poison wasn't deadly. Or the rock wouldn't fever her brain.

    The man Jaliqui had slashed whimpered in a curled ball as his blood steamed in the snow. Maral gave him no mercy but spotted a small, curved horn attached to his loincloth. She snatched it away and, after turning it over in her hands, blew into the small end.

    Cicadas.

    Time to hurry. There might be more on the way. And the sooner she gets her sister to Youta, the better.

    After she clumsily slung Jaliqui across Boo-Boo's back and secured her in place, she climbed in the saddle and began the journey back. Maral had a special way with horses, not bears, but her sister's mount seemed to know the way. Which was good because soon Maral's cheek had swelled so much she couldn't see. Amid the headache misery, her mind wandered.

    Today she'd killed her first man--if you could call him a man. But moreover, she realized this was the first time she successfully wielded a sword since she tried to defend Jungso from their mad cousin. After that humiliation, every time she sparred, the raw memory of Arasen-Usun swatting her blade aside and plunging his pommel into her eye sent her into a trembling panic.

    "A little half-breed girl playing at warrior," he'd said."There's a price for such presumption."

    Maral knew she had reclaimed something of herself today. She hoped the price wasn't her sister's life.
     
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  3. Threadmark: Chapter Two: In Which Maral Dreams of the Toadstool
    Chapter Two: In Which Maral Dreams of the Toadstool
    Maral didn't remember falling off Boo-Boo, but she must have because she awoke in snow. Excited cries, the words muffled by distance, flitted in and out of her mind. She raised her aching head and tried to look around, but her angry, melon-sized cheek kept her one eye sealed. She heard herself say something but forgot what it was as she spoke. It sounded like a whimper, and she realized she was crying.

    The voices circled her, and she caught hers and Jaliqui's names. A boy's she almost recognized said, "You're . . . you're safe now, Maral-Husun!"

    That was good enough for Maral. She went back to sleep.

    She awoke again, this time on a mattress. A crisp, earthy smell that reminded her of an eastern forest the horde had once passed through filled her nostrils. Her eyelid felt as if it was filled with broken glass, but she managed to raise it enough to see the bald, cadaverous face of Youta peering down upon her.

    Not a pleasant sight. Some of the more superstitious of the clan thought the foreign priest truly was undead, and when viewed in the medicine yurt's dim candlelight flickering shadows across his craggy features, she could hardly blame them. He looked sunken and leathery enough to be a hundred, though oddly enough he still had a full set of yellow teeth. They gave his stretched grins an unnatural vitality.

    "Ah! Look who's awake!" he said in his peculiar rasp. He pulled away a gnarled hand, and she saw he had been rubbing a green ointment on her cheek. Jungso stepped into view, slightly stooped as always.

    In the weeks since his recovery, her half-brother had grown distant and irritable, his eyes taking on a wide, bottled-passion aspect that Mother An-Zan claimed meant he was one with the spirit world.

    But now Jungso seemed almost like his old self. He smiled wearily at her, concern etched in his young face. She thought she spotted a pinch of guilt in there too, as well she should: this was at least half his fault. But she was too tired to berate him. And besides, there was a more immediate worry.

    She was almost afraid to ask. "Jaliqui . . . ?"

    "She'll be fine," Jungso said, nodding to Maral's left. "The poison was meant to numb, not kill. She's got a nasty knock on the head, though. So do you. A 'bruised brain,' Youta here says." He gently brushed her cheek, but stopped when she cringed.

    He continued, "We encountered some of the . . . natives after you two left. I guess you must have run across them too." He shook his head. "Abominations. I have skirmishers driving them away. They won't give us much trouble."

    Maral couldn't help herself. "They wouldn't give us any trouble if we weren't here."

    Her half-brother made a pained grimace, though she could tell he was more annoyed than shamed. "I know this must all seem foolish to you, little sister, but we won't be in this country much longer. Youta here has helped divine my dreams. The Tower should only be a few days from here."

    Maral closed her eye with disgust. She wanted to slap him. He'd nearly lost his two eldest siblings, and he didn't care. He was still going through with dragging the horde through this cursed and frozen bogland.

    When she didn't say anything, Jungso told her to get some rest and that they could talk later. Youta added cheerfully, "A little sleep, a little soup and you two'll be back in the saddle in no time."

    After they left, she heard a chuckle from the bed next to hers.

    "If I only had a cock . . ." said a voice weakly.

    Maral joined with a laugh that hurt her cheek. "Oh, Jaliqui, I'm so glad you're safe."

    "Me too, little sister. Is . . . is Boo-Boo alive? What happened?"

    Maral told her everything--except the part where she threw up. Speaking of what she'd done made her feel ill all over again. A vision of fingers tumbling from the fat man's hand flashed in her head. She'd half sliced off his head, and he had fallen dead in the snow.

    As if reading her mind, Jaliqui asked, "So, how did your first kill feel?"

    "Nauseous. I don't know why. He deserved it."

    "Idiots like Baidar would say it's because women have weak hearts, but I've seen a dozen brave men shake and vomit after their first battle. I almost did too. It's a revulsion in the blood. Most people have it. You'll get used to it, though." She paused before adding, "And no more of this, 'Boo-hoo, I have one eye' bullshit, all right? You're no longer a cute little mascot. You're a warrior of the Husun Clan. And . . . I'm proud of you."

    Maral blinked away a tear. Hearing that made everything worthwhile.

    From the gentle shine through the beaded curtain door, she knew it wasn't too late in the day, and sure enough, others came to visit. Mother An-Zan cooed over them both, telling how worried she'd been, and what were they thinking, going out without an escort? Jaliqui's best friend, Chambui, filled the yurt with chatter and laughter, lingering for so long that Maral nearly shouted at the falconress to go away.

    Shiggi showed up last to stammer and shuffle his feet. Maral wasn't exactly thrilled at this weird admirer seeing her bedridden and with half her face a bruise, but she was too dead tired to protest. His scouts had been the one to find them, apparently, and he probably expected her to grovel with gratitude. Instead she closed her eye and pretended to fall asleep. Anyway, Jaliqui was amiable enough to the boy. Probably. She didn't remember him leaving.

    The dream returned with new intensity.

    She was on a crowded street along the bottom of a vast canyon of mirrors. A red-haired women in a white dress was gripping her tiny hand tight and leading her through the throng of a frightened mob when the air suddenly split with an unending ghostly wail. People screamed and called out frenzied prayers. Weeping, eyes goggling, Maral stumbled after the women on plump toddler legs.

    As they moved with the crowd, she realized, as she always did at this point, that the surrounding cliff faces were in fact impossible spires of glass and iron, each as broad as a spear throw and as tall as the clouds. Between the towers she spotted a silver bird, stiff-winged but venting smoke from its tail. The heavy thum of its flight echoed over the wailing.

    The women led her to a great stone temple with a gray granite dome. Through the massive open oak doors laid darkness blurred with candlelight twinkling. The woman ushered her in, past a vestibule of carved beasts in the shapes of men.

    Every night she saw this. Every morning she forgot. She fought to act, to change the pattern, but her movements remained as fixed as the stars.

    The temple was a dim, choking swelter. Wealthy merchants knelt beside beggars, and all together they swamped the scented candles with the acidic musk of scared humanity. Though muffled, the wailing still sang through the stone.

    The woman pulled Maral down to one of the mats and embraced her with pale, freckled arms.

    "Oh, Bitti, pray! Empty your heart and pray for deliverance!"

    And so Maral did. On the far wall of the great candlelit chamber hung a white marble statue twice as tall as the tallest man. It was of a woman, naked and spreadeagle. Nails pierced her hands and feet, yet she gazed down with serenity at the worshiping multitude.

    "Oh, Inanna, you Crucified Maid, who died in Hell that we might live," said a red robed man who stood at Inanna's feet, his hands raised in supplication. "Hear us now in our time of tribulation. Spare our lives or, if that is not in your divine plan, gather our spirits to your eternal bosom."

    But the statue did not reply, and the wailing mocked the priest. Though none of this was real, knowing what came next gave Maral that same leaden dread she felt night after night.

    "Mommy, I'm scared," her small voice said.

    "I am too, Bitti. But prayer is all we have."

    "But what if Inanna doesn't save us. What if--?"

    Her mother kissed her head. "Then you will live again. And you must remember!"

    Maral heard the distant BOOM, and a heartbeat later a spiteful god kicked in the temple's left wall. Smoke. Rubble. Fire. Blood. Screams. The other walls splintered and leaned, and Inanna popped off her nails and crushed a dozen of her congregation as she shattered against the flagstones.

    And as she had done before, Maral watched the domed ceiling bob as if afloat before buckling and falling. Her mother hugged her fiercely .

    Maral cried inside to awake, but knew first she must endure this final suffering. Rocks like hammers battered her until her imagination ran mad and she saw herself as a ruptured wine-skin leaking across broken stone.

    Her face was a numb ruin. Her ears roared with ocean waves. She smelled smoke and burned flesh, and her breaths came with bloody coughs. Her mother was a warm, wet blanket crushed around her, which was probably the only reason she hadn't been killed outright.

    A slab of the roof left her trapped in a sort of slanted, rubble-cave that nothing bigger than a cat could escape, but she could still see out with her remaining eye.

    And so she looked, as she knew she must, and saw the red-streaked sky silhouetting the marvelous spires which now were but charred iron skeletons listing like drunkards. But beyond that devastation, down and to the horizon, stood the source of this evil.

    It was as beautiful as it was twisted, like the mockery of a sunset. The great, glowing cloud, imbued with the yellow fires of hell, billowed as it swelled. Smoke rings as wide as the city encircled it. A thick fiery stalk attached it to the ravaged earth.

    It looked like a toadstool.

    Maral's eye darkened, and though she felt the six year old's mortal terror, she knew she would awake soon. And this time, she would remember.
     
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  4. Threadmark: Chapter Three: In Which Jaliqui and Chambui Go on a Raid
    Chapter Three: In Which Jaliqui and Chambui Go on a Raid

    Jaliqui awoke from the dream as it dribbled from her thoughts. Whatever it had been about, it must have been a bad one for her bedding was soaked in sweat. Her arm felt for Chambui next to her, but she wasn't there. This wasn't their cot. This wasn't their yurt. Her heart pounding, Jaliqui stared at the darkness of the curved ceiling, its thin timber ribs vaguely outlined by the orange glow from the iron braziers. She heard Maral crying.

    "Little sister," Jaliqui called in a hoarse voice. "What's wrong?"

    "I must tell Mama!" Maral said weakly.

    Sheets ruffled as Maral climbed up. Dressed in a white nightgown, her pale, slender, red-haired figure ambled through the beaded curtain to outside.

    "Sister!" Jaliqui cried and then cursed. Every muscle ached, but let it never be said that she would let her sister wander off into the cold alone. She rolled out of bed and wobbled as she stood on uncertain legs. The knot on the back of her head throbbed angrily; her brains sloshed like soup in a bowl. Her eyesight wandered as though she were drunk. She managed to make it outside before kneeling over and retching into the snow.

    "Jaliqui-Husun!" cried a sentry, gripping her around the waist to steady her. Jaliqui didn't bother resisting: without his aid she knew she'd topple.

    "Where's Maral?" she gasped, though he was already walking her across towards Mother An-Zan's yurt. A breeze chilled through her gown. The snow stung her bare feet. It wasn't far, but by the time they reached the curtained entrance, she felt as if she'd just woken from a nap and had to remind herself why she wanted to come here. Youta had said she may be forgetful for a while.

    A small central fire kept the large, conical interior well lit. Maral was already sitting on the bed beside An-Zan, hugging her and clutching at her blue silk robe as she wept, her long orange-red hair hiding her bruised face.

    Though An-Zan was Jaliqui's birth mother, she shared no blood with Maral. But this didn't matter to An-Zan: she treated all of Jungdu Khan's children as though they were her own. Though strands of white streaked her long black hair, and she'd grown plump from birthing, she was still handsome for a woman close to forty.

    An-Zan smiled serenely and nodded at the sentry, who helped Jaliqui to her side. An-Zan then wrapped an arm around her and drew her close, and though Jaliqui was a woman, not a child, she rested her head on her mother's soft shoulder. A slave offered her a mug of mare's milk, and after a few sips the burning in her throat subsided. The warm air smelled of rosewater and jasmine incense. Jaliqui closed her eyes.

    "It's all right, Baby Scarlet. It's all right," An-Zan said. "I've been having dreams too. I'd like you to tell me yours."

    And so Maral did. Listening to her describe the spires of iron and glass, the silver bird and the ghostly wail made Jaliqui's skin crawl. At the mention of the temple of the crucified goddess, a tiny, inexplicable fervor tugged at Jaliqui's soul. When Maral finally came to the earth shattering thunder and the fire and the blazing toadstool cloud looming over the charred ruins of the massive city, Jaliqui trembled.

    An-Zan stroked Jaliqui's short hair. "And how about you tell me your dream, Little Jali?"

    Jaliqui nodded. There was no use lying. Her arms crossed Maral's as she hugged her mother too. The memories gushed through her as she spoke.

    "I . . . I was a man. I was sitting in the skull of a giant metal bird, like the one you saw, Maral. I had levers and wheels, and I used them to tell the bird what to do. And I saw the city below me. It . . . it was huge! A hundred times bigger than Yubka. The glass towers, they were like trees in a forest that stretched to the horizon! And then a second sun burst from the ground, and I saw the toadstool and . . ." Trailing off, she remembered her mortal terror as the bird shredded around her and erupted into flames. Engulfed in fiery agony, she'd screamed as she fell. That man she'd been had had a family--a wife and two daughters. She could see their pale foreign faces in her mind.

    With sudden shame, Jaliqui realized she was crying. Her tears staining her mother's robe. Reflexively, she reached up for her neck, but she'd left her talisman to the Goddess Itugen beside the cot. She felt very vulnerable.

    "What does it mean, Mama?" Jaliqui croaked.

    Her mother hmm'd. Born the daughter of a banner lord in the Empire, An-Zan had been well-tutored before being married off in tribute to Jungdu Khan. As such, she was an accomplished soothsayer and natural philosopher. Jaliqui awaited her wisdom.

    "This is a sick land," An-Zan said finally. "Many centuries ago, the toadstool clouds unleashed great poison into the air and earth, tainting all that live here. Most people don't get the dreams, but those that do are . . . sensitive to that past pain." She shrugged, her shoulder nudging up Jaliqui's cheek. "Or maybe the dreams mean something else. Who can say?"

    "My brother's a fool for coming here," Jaliqui said.

    "Perhaps," her mother agreed. "But he is our Khan. And he sees more than we do. His dreams are intenser. Only Youta's guidance keeps him from going mad."

    It's not working, Jaliqui almost said but held her tongue.

    "But why has he led us here, Mama?" Maral asked, her sleepy voice making her sound closer to six than sixteen. "He says he's looking for 'the tower,' but he won't explain what that is or why he has to find it."

    "I don't think he knows," An-Zan said. "But he's seen it in his dreams, a broken spire in the middle of a frozen sea. The gods spoke to him during his sickness, and they ordained that he find it and go into it and uncover its secrets."

    An-Zan sighed, and then kissed Maral and Jaliqui each on the top of their heads. "Pray he finds it soon, my children, for I fear this land is poisoning us."

    ***​

    There were no more of the dreams, but having a bruised brain was no fun.

    Aside from the nausea, confusion and the odd mood swings, Jaliqui had to relinquish command of her Baavgai Moon Cavalry to Chambui, her soul sister. It was humiliating. Jaliqui should have been out screening for the horde or leading raids on the Bog Men villages, but instead, she was forced to ride in a royal caravan wagon and endure its slow, rolling drudge through the icy marshland with nothing to do but listen to the boring prattle of old women, small children and other relations unfit to sit in a saddle.

    At least during the nights, after the horde set up their camps, she could share her bed with Chambui. But after a week, when she began teasing Jaliqui about how she was becoming a pillow wife, Jaliqui decided that she had recovered enough.

    The next morning, the low rising sun shone lazily through the chilly fog, blurring the snowy landscape with a dreamlike sheer. Squatting on a stool, Jaliqui breakfasted on steak and eggs and watched as her eunuchs dressed and saddled Boo Boo. They'd already fastened the gold-plated helmet onto the giant moon bear's head, and now they nervously strapped on the gleaming steel-scaled lamellar armor along his massive chest and flanks. Boo-Boo growled menacingly, but Jaliqui had him well trained. He hadn't killed a slave in months.

    Accompanied by a half dozen of his kheshig, Jungso Khan rode up. Jaliqui gave him a cursory nod as he dismounted his horse and stepped up beside her, his bodyguards remaining a polite distance away. She and her twin were dressed in almost identical wool deels of blue and gold--the colors of Husun royalty--and along with their clothes, they also shared a similar lanky, wiry build and the same sharp chin and prominent cheekbones that they'd inherited from An-Zan's southern blood. Her brother walked with a slight stoop now, and his face was perpetually lined with aches: reminders of his nearly mortal wounds at the hands of his treacherous uncle.

    Jungso's brown eyes were still clear, though, but they seemed to stare at things too distant, at things that weren't there. Jungso had glimpsed the other side of the vale and had returned as something not quite the brother she had grown up with. It was Youta's fault as well. He'd healed her brother, but he'd also encouraged his fever dreams and filled his head with foreign superstition.

    "How are you feeling?" Jungso asked.

    "Sometimes I get a little woozy," she admitted, chewing on a bit of fat, "but I'll go mad if I have to sit in that cursed wagon another day and listen to another one of Aunt Ergene's stories."

    He chuckled at that. "It wouldn't be so bad if she didn't tell the same ones over and over again. Of course, for her I think it's always the first time."

    Passing her empty plate to a slave, she stood and smiled. "And it's hard to understand her, what with having no teeth."

    His grin slowly faded. "Be careful. The Bog Men are primitive and disorganized, but Youta says we shouldn't grow complacent."

    There he was with 'Youta' again. One would think the ancient priest was the true Khan of the Husun.

    "Chambui hasn't lost a single warrior in her raids," she said. "Not that the savages have much worth raiding. We can't keep this up, brother. Our supply train from Zelüzar is getting too long, and even if we stripped this land clean and stole everything the Bog Men have, our horde would be starving in a week."

    Jungso grimaced. "Our logistics isn't that bad. Three weeks, maybe. A month if we tighten our belts. And if it got bad enough, we could send most of our numbers back---including your bears. They're meat-hogs, and frankly we don't need them here." He shook his head. "But the tower's close. I know it. I've dreamed it. I promise you, we'll be heading out of this wasteland before the next full moon."

    Jaliqui touched at her talisman and considered mentioning her and Maral's shared dream, but before she could reply, Chambui rode up on her moon bear, Dabana. On Chambui's gloved hand was perched one of her falcons, and both she and the bird looked down from the great height of her saddle. Chambui wasn't foolish enough to sneer openly at her Khan, but Jaliqui could spot the disapproval in her hazel eyes.

    The falcon remained dutifully still as Chambui swung over a willowy leg and hopped from the bear to the mud. Even on the ground, she towered over both Husuns. She bowed slightly to Jungso, the movement sweeping forward her long black hair, but she spoke to Jaliqui.

    "I'm glad you are well, Princess-Commander. We await your orders."

    Jungso smirked at the use of her official title. They'd tried to keep it a secret, but Jaliqui was pretty sure he knew she and Chambui were more than best friends. He'd never even discussed arranging a marriage for her, and for that she was grateful. Mad though he might be, her twin was still a good brother.

    "Eju protect you both," he said. "And be sure to bring back plenty of scalps. Youta can use them for his spells."

    Chambui looked at Jaliqui and rolled her eyes, letting her know exactly what she thought of Youta's foreign devil magic. But they would do as he bid them, though Chambui was more into collecting ears.

    Jaliqui and her brother embraced, and Jungso left to conduct horde business. As Chambui watched him and his kheshig ride away into the camp, Jaliqui hugged her from behind, wrapping her arms across the cold steel scales of her lamellar cuirass. Chambui was almost a hand taller than her, but she managed to hook her chin over her armored spaulders and nuzzle into her thick black mane. The hair was fine and bore a slight kink, a trait that along with Chambui's dark skin, full lips and long-limbed stature, showed her Wärkama ancestry.

    Jaliqui breathed deeply of her musk. Chambui murmured contentedly and turned and kissed her. She tasted faintly of pepper.

    "So, what fun have you got planned for us today, Cham?" Jaliqui asked.

    Chambui smiled crookedly and held up the falcon still perched on her gloved hand. "Ask Tarkhi."

    Jaliqui grinned and leaned into the bird's face. "So, what did you find, Tarkhi? Tell Mama Jali what you found!"

    The falcon's hooked beak nibbled the air before he spoke. His words were high-pitched and broken up with little squeaking squawks.

    "Small village . . . three hour ride north west west . . . big round huts on sticks . . . big stone hut in center . . . hundred plus men!"

    "Good Tarkhi! Very, very good!" Chambui said, stroking the back of the falcon's neck. He preened in appreciation. From a wicker cage danging from Dabana's saddle, she drew out a field mouse which she tossed to the ground. The rodent began scurrying away.

    "Yum yum, Tarkhi! Yum yum!"

    "Yum yum!" it repeated.

    From her glove, Tarkhi swooped down, gripped the mouse in his talons and pecked it to bits. Chambui and Jaliqui watched him enjoy his meal.

    "The other birds gave similar reports," Chambui said. "From past raids, we know the big round huts are probably granaries, most likely stashed with rice. I have no idea what the 'stone hut' is. Anyway, I expect this will be another clean sweep. Trap them and kill them."

    Jaliqui nodded. "Good, I owe these savages some payback. Believe me, having a bruised brain is no fun."

    Chambui laughed. "Believe me, I believe you! You've only been bitching about it all week." She huffed, and her face grew serious. "I'm just glad Maral saved you. I . . . I couldn't bear to lose you, Jali."

    Jaliqui leaned into her embrace and shuddered. She didn't even want to think what would have happened if those deformed Bog Men had captured her alive. They were abominations. They needed to die.

    "Let's move out," Jaliqui said finally.

    "At once, Princess-Commander," Chambui said with a smile.

    Jaliqui's eunuchs strapped on her lamellar armor and retrieved her saber, lance and recurve bow. In addition to the same gear, Chambui took her shotel and a quiver of jarids--weapons of her mother's people. There was no need to lead all three companies of the Baavgai, so Jaliqui chose only sixty bears, supported with one hundred light cavalry. Chambui assured her such a force would be more than enough to overrun Bog Men rabble.

    As Jaliqui led the party past the edge of the camp, she spotted Maral in the distance sparring with Shiggi. Jaliqui and Chambui waited until the redheaded girl had knocked the boy into the mud before shouting their cheers, which were then multiplied by the cavalry behind them. Maral's laughter echoed in the morning air, and she waved with her wooden sword.

    Their bears side by side, the lovers shared a grin.

    "I'm glad she's becoming her old self again," Jaliqui said. "I was getting worried."

    "You want to take her on the raid?"

    Jaliqui thought about it and shook her head. With a hand she signaled for the raiding party to advance, and beneath her Boo Boo swayed gently as they moved across the frozen wetlands. The scales of his armor jingled faintly like little wind chimes.

    "She's still terrible with a bow," Jaliqui explained. "It'll be a while yet before she's even 'acceptable' again."

    "That's a shame. She used to be better than you."

    Jaliqui feigned outrage. "That's a lie. No one is."

    "Remember that crazy farmer out in Khokh Oi?"

    "It was raining."

    "I made the shot."

    "You were a lot closer than me!"

    "I bet I can bag more Bog Men than you."

    "No you can't. I'll beat you even with a bruised brain."

    "How long are you going to use that excuse?"

    "Until I stop feeling drunk half the time," Jaliqui said and laughed.

    Today was going to be a good day.
    ***
    All right, next up: Faraday 1.3
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2015
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  5. Love it. Will be interested in seeing more of the backstory expanded upon, and seeing a little more of Jungso himself rather than just his sisters, as well as more on neighbouring states.
     
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