Author's Note: This is an ongoing story that I plan to update every other week (give or take a day or two). I am writing this to test my abilities as I intend to one day be a published author (I do not plan to publish this story, though. It would be kind of pointless due to the fact that it will be available for free here. I am writing this along with the story I intend to publish, which is why I do not think I will be able to update more often than every other week), so constructive criticism is very appreciated.
Chapter 1: Arrival in Nilenbay
"Dreti, is it not breathtaking?" Talisent ler Geltrinea looked down from her horse.
Jirdrea ler Bilandra had been impressed the first time she saw Nilenbay herself. The nine-towered fortress stood second in height only to Castle Osarbin in Beosachuth. Each tower was named for one of the nine Goddesses of Nilenira: Nilensent, Gilserea, Prelsient, Tarilsea, Felnisent, Jirdrisent, Bilasent, Relterea, and Desarlea. The towers had been built over a period of twenty-two cycles, one hundred and ninety-eight years, ending four cycles earlier.
Jirdrea's grandmother had just been selected as a High Commander in time to see the Tower of Bilasent's completion. She said that the festivities were unlike any other in her lifetime. Jirdrea's grandmother's mother had been Supreme Commander at the time, and she commissioned a great tournament in honor of the nine Goddess towers. The event was shockingly won by High Commander Filanea ler Giltrea, who was already forty-two years old then. Even Jirdrea's mother Bilandra, who had been just been a young girl at the time, vividly remembered Filanea defeating Jirdrea's grandmother early on. Filanea's victory over Reltrea ler Telsaldra, two cycles her junior, won her the tournament. Jirdrea had been waiting for first tournament since she became a Swordcheek four years earlier.
"Dreti?" Talisent asked.
"Sorry, Talti. I was lost in my thoughts," Jirdrea said, "I've been in Nilenbay for three years. I've seen this view many times."
Jirdrea had been in Nilenbay too long to be impressed by it anymore. The city's nine stone towers were more of a show for visiting foreign envoys than actually practical use. The Towers of Bilasent, Tarilsea, Prelsient, and Relterea were behind the outermost wall, making them worthwhile archery posts in the event of a siege. The Tower of Tarilsea was on the side closest to the sea, due to the fact that Tarilsea was the Goddess of Water, making it even more useful as a lookout for warships and as a lighthouse. The other five towers, however, surrounded the inner fortress, too far away from outermost wall to place archers if the city was under attack.
It was true that Nilenbay's nine walls, ranging from the forty-five foot outer wall to the two-hundred-foot innermost wall, made the city nearly unassailable. However, any army marching across land would have to have crossed nearly all of Nilenira to reach Nilenbay, and no force had ever managed that. Assailants from the sea would have to deal with not just Nilenbay, but East Nilenbay and Oldhome, along with the forces from all the smaller castles around Nilenira Bay, and forces from Woodspoint close enough to be called to battle. The walls and their gates served more to delay anyone trying to come to the inner fortress in peacetime by making them wait for nine drawbridges to be lowered and nine portcullises to be raised.
"I have to return to the city soon. The other High Commanders will be expecting me in the inner fortress by the ninth bell," Jirdrea said. She kicked her horse to start moving towards the city. Talisent rode beside her, with the deer they had killed lying across her horse's back.
"And when will you bloodbind me, Dreti?" Talisent asked, "I'm ready to have your daughters."
This was why Jirdrea was bringing Talisent to Nilenbay. It was sacrilege for Swordcheeks to birth their own children, so, to produce daughters to inherit their lands, they had to make the wombs of other women their own, through a ceremony called 'bloodbinding'. For the nine High Commanders and the Supreme Commander, the leaders of Nilenira, it was also sacrilege to bloodbind their birth-mothers anywhere but the holiest house of the Goddesses, located in Nilenbay's eighth ring.
"Seventeenth bell. It needs to be done by torchlight, in the house of the Goddesses," Jirdrea said, "And I am still looking for a husband to form a breeding pair with you. Once you and I are bloodbinded, your womb will be a part of me in the eyes of the Goddesses, so naturally I want to find a man that we both fancy."
"Yes, a man," Talisent said, as if she had forgotten how children were made, "I... want one who, uh... builds... or one who farms."
"Building or farming? That's nearly all any man is good for, Talti. Besides breeding, of course," Jirdrea said, "you've only eliminated foreign warriors from consideration."
"If you wish to pair me with a man from another country, I will be happy. My mother made me using a Beosach man and a Maerplia woman," Talisent said.
"You mean you will be sleeping with this man until the end of your childbearing years, and you do not care in the slightest who he is?" Jirdrea said. She laughed, "Talti, you are the strangest girl I have ever met." Jirdrea playfully hit Talisent on the arm. Talisent smiled back at her, brushing the blonde hair of her Beosach birth-father out of her face.
As one would expect, Talisent looked like a combination of the Maerplios from around the Lesser Maerplion Bay, which Nilenirans called 'Tarilsea's thumb', and Beosachs from southeast Beosachuth. Along with her birth-father's distinctively-southeast hair color, she also shared the pale skin tone nearly all of the Beosachs. From her birth-mother, she received big brown eyes and large nostrils found in Maerplion. She also stood shorter than most women with Nileniran blood, a full foot shorter than Jirdrea, and her arms and legs were little more than twigs. These two reasons were likely why she was unable to pass her training and earn her sword-mark like Jirdrea.
"Perhaps you could... wait for the Grand Selection at the new year? I'm certain there will be a great young man waiting for you then," Talisent said.
"No, I will be twenty-three years of age by that time. My mother demands that I have a pregnant Bloodbinded before my birthday," Jirdrea said.
"Over nine thousand deaths for your mother's demands! You are a High Commander, Dreti, of rank with your mother. She cannot command you," Talisent said.
"My mother is right, though. The moment I had the sword-mark burned onto my cheek, I became a woman. I cannot delay the coming of my daughters any further," Jirdrea said, "if you do not want me to find a husband and pair him with you, why did you ask to be bloodbinded to me?"
"Dreti... I... I guess you are right. I will accept the man you find whenever you find him," Talisent said.
As the girls got closer to the city, the wind changed direction, carrying the scent of the lower rings their direction.
"What is that smell?" Talisent made a face of revulsion.
"That smell is Nilenbay, Talti. The Secondaries in their guard barracks in the lowest ring, and all of their shit, and the commoners in the next three rings, and all of their shit, and all of the animals and their shit. All baking in the heat this time of year," Jirdrea said, "It's not the tale of the mightiest city in Nilenira that we heard when we were little girls, and it's only going to get worse as we approach the city."
The two girls rode closer to Nilenbay. As they approached, Jirdrea saw that the drawbridge across the first moat was down, and the portcullis was raised. This was common enough, and welcome for Jirdrea, who would have to journey to the innermost ring. Soon, they reached the outer wall. It was the shortest, to make it easier for archers on the inner walls to fire upon attackers, but was still impressive in height.
Jirdrea and Talisent entered through the west gate and into the outermost ring. Wooden barracks lined the inside of the outer wall, while the massive Tower of Bilasent rose halfway between the two walls and not far off the path that Jirdrea and Talisent rode down, with its stables built up against it. Other than that, area of the outer ring that the two girls could see was occupied with Secondaries cooking their midday meals over fires, while several of them seemed intent practicing their swordplay up until the ninth bell had rung on the house of the Goddesses.
Jirdrea spotted two Secondaries cooking a chicken over a fire not far off the path. The girls were younger even than Jirdrea and Talisent, likely sixteen or seventeen years of age. They still would have been in training for another year or two if they had not failed prematurely. Though every girl was required to enter Swordcheek training, very few were deemed worthy of having their cheek branded with the sword-shaped mark. The unsuccessful girls that show enough combat prowess were selected for the Secondaries, who made up most of the women-at-arms across Nilenira. As Jirdrea approached them, they stared at her with their mouths open, likely in awe of the fact that she had a sword-mark branded onto both of her cheeks, indicating that she was a High Commander. One of the Secondaries hastily saluted her by placing her thumbs together so that they formed an upside-down "V" on her forehead, with her other fingers bent downward but not clenched to the point that her palms were no longer visible. The Secondary then elbowed her comrade to get her to do the same.
"How may we serve Your Ferocity?" the Secondary who saluted second asked.
"This girl is Talisent ler Geltrinea, whom I intend to bloodbind with tonight. Escort her to the Tower of Prelsient and my horse to the nearest stables to the tower. My servants will take over from there," Jirdrea said. Each High Commander made her home in one of the nine towers, with the Tower of Prelsient being Jirdrea's.
"Yes, Your Ferocity," the two Secondaries repeated the salute. Jirdrea returned to Talisent.
"Instruct my cooks to begin working on the deer. After my meeting in the inner fortress, I will return to the tower. The theatre will be performing The Triumph of Naldrasent, and I would like for you to have a chance to see it," she said.
"With you?" Talisent asked.
"Certainly," Jirdrea said.
"I shall await in anticipation," Talisent said. Jirdrea and Talisent dismounted from their horses and Talisent followed behind the two Secondaries as they lead the mounts away to the north, Talisent's horse still carrying the deer.
As soon as Jirdrea began walking towards the next gate, she heard screaming coming from the south. She left the path and dodged around campfires and Secondaries to investigate the commotion. Several of the Secondaries shouted curses at her as dashed through, before they noticed her twin cheek brands, saluted her, and begged her forgiveness. The Secondaries slowed to a trickle as Jirdrea got farther from the path, until the outer ring became an empty plain, allowing Jirdrea to run at an even faster pace. After around a half-mile of open plain as she circled Nilenbay, the campfires of the Secondaries started to reappear, indicating that Jirdrea was getting near the south gate. It was around this time when the screaming finally stopped. Jirdrea eventually reached the source of the scream, slightly off the southern path near the Tower of Relterea.
A Secondary of similar age as the two that Jirdrea had met earlier was lying dead on the ground, her throat slit. All of the nearby Secondaries were clearly frightened by the scene, but one who looked to be of age with Jirdrea was loudly sobbing. Standing over the dead girl was a woman who, like Jirdrea, had a sword branded onto each cheek. She was a short woman, taller than Talisent but still a good hand-and-a-half shorter than Jirdrea, with colorless white hair that fell halfway down her back. Her skin, what little of it was exposed, was even paler than Talisent's, as colorless as her hair, in fact, and her eyes were pale blue, and showed no emotion whatsoever. She was thirty-five years of age, but not a single wrinkle had formed on her blank face. Despite the heat, most of her skin was covered up, and a hood kept her face out of the sun. She was High Commander Dralnea ler Reltrea, Sword of Tarilsea and Defender of Oldhome. In her right hand was the bloodied dagger that had opened the young Secondary's throat. In her left were the reins to her horse that was standing behind her.
"She did not salute me," Dralnea told Jirdrea in the same emotionless tone she used on all the rare occasions that she spoke. She sheathed her dagger and spat on the dead girl's corpse. She then shoved the reins of her horse into the crying girl's hands and walked toward the next gate as if nothing had happened.
"I... I don't... I... don't know," the crying Secondary said between sobs.
"That was Dralnea ler Reltrea. The Tower of Tarilsea," Jirdrea said.
"Thank you... Your Ferocity... not 'you'... please forgive me," the Secondary said. She acted as though she thought she was about to suffer the same fate as the one she was crying over. Jirdrea placed her hand on the girl's shoulder.
"I apologize if it is painful for you to talk about, but I must know what happened," she said.
"Yes, Your Ferocity. We... we were about to make our... our midday meal. I... I... sent her to get firewood. It's all my fault. I sent her to... to get the firewood. High Commander Dralnea started riding down the path. She... she didn't set the wood down to salute fast enough. She was just a girl. High Commander Dralnea grabbed her by the hair and dragged her along as she rode... full... full gallop... from there," the crying Secondary said. She pointed to a point closer to the outer wall, "to here... then... turned around... and back to there... then here... then... back and forth... back and forth... then High Commander Dralnea... she got off her horse and... and... she was just a girl..." the girl, no longer able to form the words, pointed to the gaping opening on the dead younger girl's throat. She looked back up to the Jirdrea, with tears pouring from her eyes.
"She was my sister. My... my little sister. She... she... she just arrived in Nilenbay five days ago. All she talked about was how... how glad she was that we could be Secondaries here... here together. She was just a girl," the crying girl said. Jirdrea placed her other hand on the girl's other shoulder.
"Your sister is with the Goddesses in their holy hall. All the horrors of this world will never trouble her again. When Felnisent comes for Dralnea's soul, your sister's killer will be taken to a realm as horrible as she is. While your sister feasts on foods of a deliciousness we cannot even imagine, High Commander Dralnea shall be eternally feasted on by the terrible lizards whose bones have been turned to stone by the ages," Jirdrea said, "I apologize for your loss, and deeply regret this stain in brings on the title of High Commander. Walk with me to the eighth ring and take your sister to the house of the Goddesses so that she can be given a proper burial."
"But... but if I don't... the horse," the Secondary said.
Jirdrea turned to one of the other Secondaries.
"Take this horse to the Tower of Tarilsea," Jirdrea said.
"Yes, Your Ferocity," the Secondary saluted Jirdrea and took Dralnea's horse. The grieving Secondary picked up her sister's corpse and walked beside Jirdrea as they approached the next gate. The Secondary's sobs began to grow quieter as she started to calm down.
The portcullis on the next gate had already been lowered following Dralnea's passage, but the drawbridge had yet to be raised. Standing guard by the drawbridge were a pair of women who appeared to be around thirty years of age. The single sword-shaped brand on their left cheeks marked them as true Swordcheeks rather than Secondaries. Jirdrea still outranked them, however, so they saluted her.
"Your Ferocity," they said as they saluted. Then, they turned to the grieving Secondary.
"Hey, you," one of the Swordcheeks said, "drop that in the moat where it belongs and salute us, failure."
The Secondary started sobbing loudly again. The two Swordcheeks started laughing
"Faltrinet, you made the little failure girl cry. Did we insult your dead little failure friend?" the other Swordcheek said, "don't worry, she can't hear us. Felnisent dropped her into the big, steaming pile of shit that all you Secondaries go to when you die."
Jirdrea backhanded the Swordcheek on her swordless cheek.
"This girl is following my orders. Insulting those who are carrying out my business is akin to insulting me. Are you insulting me, maggots?" Jirdrea said.
"No, Your Ferocity," the two Swordcheeks saluted her again.
"Now, I order both of you to apologize to this girl. She cruelly lost her sister just moments ago," Jirdrea said.
"But, she's a Secondary," one of the Swordcheeks said.
"So, you wish to incur the wrath of Jirdrea ler Bilandra, Sword of Prelsient? Need I remind you that my mother and grandmother are High Commanders as well? Do you wish to make enemies with my family?" Jirdrea asked.
"No, Your Ferocity," the two Swordcheeks said together. They saluted her once more, and turned to the Secondary.
"Please accept our sincerest apologies," one of the Swordcheeks said.
"We are certain your sister is feasting in the Hall of the Goddesses," the other said.
"That's better. Now open the gate. I have a meeting in the inner fortress at the ninth bell," Jirdrea said.
Once the portcullis was raised, Jirdrea and the Secondary girl walked through the gate. The second ring was filled with straw huts and the low-level commoners who lived in them.
"I hope Your Ferocity doesn't consider me weak," the Secondary said, "I... I'm a grown woman in my third cycle. I don't usually cry like a little boy."
"I have sisters, too. My elder sister Belisdrea was my closest friend since we were little girls. I doubt I could keep my composure if I saw her share your sister's fate," Jirdrea said, "tell me, what is your name?"
"If it pleases Your Ferocity, I am Nelsildra ler Tirsent. My mother is the Defender of Oceanhand. She's upset that her eldest five daughters have all failed training. The way those Swordcheeks treated me... it reminded me of her. Ralinea and I were the only two to even make it as Secondaries. I came to Nilenbay to escape that, and my sister followed," the Secondary said.
"Nelsildra, I fear you will be looked down on by Swordcheeks until the day Felnisent comes for your soul. I hear that commoners are proud when their daughters become Secondaries. They know the amount of skill it takes to even reach that level. However, all noblewomen see is a girl who did not complete her training. I remember the day my sister was told to leave training and begin life as a Secondary. Our mother told her to never refer to herself as 'Belisdrea ler Bilandra' again. I suppose it is a flaw of a system that awards inheritance to the eldest Swordcheek. If I were made Supreme Commander, I would change things so that our lands passed to the eldest daughter, regardless of how she performed in training," Jirdrea said.
"I am sure one day Your Ferocity will be the greatest Supreme Commander in Nilenira's history," Nelsildra said.
By this time, Jirdrea and Nelsildra had reached the next gate.
"The Secondary is with me. Open the gate," Jirdrea did not want to have another incident like what happened at the previous gate.
"Yes, Your Ferocity," the Swordcheeks at this gate said. Once this portcullis was raised, Jirdrea and Nelsildra moved into the third ring. The homes in this ring were larger than the ones in the second ring, and were made of wooden logs cut from the vast western forest located not far from Nilenbay.
"Nelsildra, I have a favor to ask of you," Jirdrea said.
"Anything, Your Ferocity," Nelsildra said.
"Four day-cycles ago, one of my mother's Bloodbinded's child-bearing years ended, so, to replace her, my mother took my squire. I originally wanted my friend from training, Talisent ler Geltrinea, to take over as my squire, but she told me that she wanted to bloodbind with meinstead. As you know, it is quite common for Secondaries to be selected for the position, and, although I have known you for so briefly, I can tell you are a good woman and would make a great squire," Jirdrea said, "What say you?"
"Your Ferocity wants me to be her squire? This is a great honor. Few women get to squire for High Commanders... but, will I have to start immediately?" Nelsildra asked.
"If you wish to have a burial for your sister at Oceanhand..." Jirdrea said.
"No, our mother would never allow it. We are a disgrace to the Oceanhand line, she says. I will bury my sister here in Nilenbay. I just need time to mourn her... she was just a girl," Nelsildra began sobbing again, staring at the dead body in her arms.
"Take all the time you need. Talisent can serve as my squire until she gets great with child, and I still have not found a man for her as of yet," Jirdrea said.
"I should be ready in a day-cycle, Your Ferocity," Nelsildra said, "Ralinea wouldn't want me to refuse this honor."
"Very well. Whenever you feel you are ready, report to the Tower of Prelsient. If I am elsewhere, ask for Fersinet ler Jirdrea, my aunt and the tower's castellan. She will tell you where I have gone to and when I will return," Jirdrea said.
"Yes, Your Ferocity," Nelsildra said.
Jirdrea began telling Nelsildra about spending the first cycle of her life at Passguard. She mentioned the time when she and Belisdrea journeyed into the pass to the site where, three hundred years earlier, Dilsinet Vecendishbane held off the Dog God's Legion, Vecendall's most elite foot soldiers, until reinforcements could arrive. Jirdrea also told Nelsildra about the time that she and her sister journeyed even further, across the Vecendish border. The journey took several days, but they soon made it through the Vecendish Mountains. They were found by Lord Bansdar Mesalgil of the Horse God's Knights, and his son Benlor. Lord Bansdar was amused at the two girls, who were aged six and seven at the time, making it through the pass by themselves. Jirdrea remembered him asking his son if he wanted to marry one of them, but young Benlor said that he would rather have a 'real lady'. The two Vecendishmen took the two girls back to Passguard, where their mother punished them.
Nelsildra began telling of her youth at Oceanhand, but, whenever she mentioned her sister Ralinea, she lost the ability to hold back her tears. However, by this time they had reached the eighth ring, and it was time for the two of them to part ways. The Secondary took her sister towards the house of the Goddesses, while Jirdrea continued onward towards the final drawbridge and, from there, the innermost circle.