Authors: Michael-Scott Earle
Tags: #General Fiction
By Michael-Scott Earle
I preferred to spend my early mornings alone.
I awoke at dawn to exercise and stretch as I watched the sun slowly warm the world and wake my troops. Normally, my lieutenants would arrive in my tent for our breakfast and strategy meeting just after I had finished, but we had decided not to meet today. Malek was working with a new batch of recruits, Thayer was doing some survival training with his troops, and I had given leave to Gorbanni and Alexia.
I could let my friends have a day off, but I did not want a break. I studied the map on the table, calculating the various risks to our army against the damage we could do to our enemies. It was somewhat refreshing to do this on my own, and I was so absorbed in it that I only realized the sun had already risen to mid-morning when I heard footsteps approach. A throat cleared at the entrance of my tent and I debated dismissing the visitor.
“Enter.” I changed my mind as I wiped some of the lingering sleep out of my eyes. The footsteps hardly sank into the soft grass outside my tent, so I guessed a female was visiting. It wasn’t Alexia, the blonde woman made absolutely no noise when she walked, and she would have just come into my tent without alerting me to her presence.
A dark-haired young woman, maybe a few inches shorter than my six-foot height, carefully ducked under the canvas flap. She carried a large wooden tray with bowls of steaming gruel, a pot of tea, and two covered dishes that smelled like eggs with beef. The woman’s hair was tied back in a high ponytail and her eyes glittered a bright green.
“Kaiyer?" Her eyes searched my face and I heard her heart thunder in her chest.
"That is me." I guessed who she was, but I didn't know why she had entered my tent.
"I'm Shlara." She smiled confidently, and I understood why Malek had told of her beauty. She was painfully thin though, and I saw the blue network of veins beneath the smooth skin of her arms and neck. She was wearing a set of our dark gray training tunics and pants. It hung tight around her famished body, revealing a pitiful lack of muscle and an emaciated over-emphasis of bone.
"I've heard about you."
"I've heard about you as well. I brought you breakfast. Have you eaten?" She seemed to second guess herself; it was past breakfast time for the rest of the army.
"No, actually, I haven't."
"Why aren't there chairs in your tent?" she asked with a frown. She looked for a place to put the food and the only open spot was either my cot or the table where I stood.
"I'll take that. Thank you." I grasped the wooden tray and wondered for a second how she had gotten the extra plates. Even though the woman was thin, the meals were carefully rationed by the cooking staff. The tray almost didn't fit on the side of the small table. I grabbed a bowl of gruel, dipped a wooden spoon in it, and shoved it down my throat. It burned like molten fire, but my mouth healed almost instantly.
"Why are there no guards outside your tent?"
"Why would I need guards?" I didn't look up at her.
"Couldn't someone come in here and assassinate you?" she answered with a question.
"Who would want to assassinate me?" Our eyes met and I smiled at her mirthfully.
"The Elvens of course!" Her brows knit and she seemed outraged with the idiocy of my response.
"I doubt they could get through the camp."
"What if they did?" She folded her arms and bit her lip.
"If an Elven somehow made it through the camp and got to my tent, I'd probably have to kill it. You may find this hard to believe, but I've killed them before." I chuckled.
"What if they send a half dozen?" She didn't seem to understand my lack of concern.
"I doubt half a dozen could make it through the army. But I've killed that many before." I turned back down to the map and ate another spoonful of the gruel.
Half a minute passed before Shlara cleared her throat again. I looked up at her and noticed she was eyeing the plate of food with one eyebrow raised.
"I forgot to thank you for bringing the food."
"No. You thanked me. I brought food for both of us. I wanted to have breakfast with you." She unfolded her arms and smiled confidently, but I heard her heart race with nervousness.
"I see why Malek likes you so much." Her smile brightened at the mention of Malek. "But I have plans this morning. Perhaps we can have lunch a few months from now, after you begin your training." Her grin faded.
"I have wanted to meet you for so long. We traveled such a great distance." She tried to regain her composure.
"Malek mentioned something of that to me." He had actually been bragging about Shlara for the last week. She had led a group of over two hundred men, women, and children through the wilderness to find us. She had orchestrated the group's escape and killed four Elvens with various weapons the slaves had crafted.
"We have been searching for your camp for sixteen moon cycles. I've heard stories of you and your army. I didn't want to wait for you to come free us." She regained her confidence and pushed her pretty chin up into the air boldly.
"Because of this, you think you deserve some of my time?" I stared at her.
"You normally have breakfast with your lieutenants." She licked her lips nervously and her heart betrayed her poise.
"Just think of me as your next lieutenant then. Actually, consider me your next general." She smiled again and I had to force myself not to grin back. Malek was never wrong about people and this girl had already impressed me. She bordered on arrogant, but not without cause.
"You are quite confident."
"I will be your best general. I am very smart. I have only been in the camp a week and I have twenty ideas to improve your logistics."
"Logistics is something we need help with. Alexia and Gorbanni will want to hear your ideas."
"Don't you want to hear them?" she sat down on my cot and smiled at me again. Her heart beat as fast as a hummingbird's. I could not tell her age, but I guessed she was probably a few years older than I was when the Elvens had changed me.
After Iolarathe had killed my father and brother.
"If they are good ideas, I'll be informed of the changes." My words pushed through clenched teeth. I wasn't particularly mad at the girl, but the memory of Iolarathe made me want to crush skulls with my mace.
She shot to her feet. "I'll be going then." She took two steps toward the tent flap.
"Wait." She stopped suddenly and then slowly turned around to face me. I handed her a bowl of gruel and she grinned with surprise. "Did you make an appointment to see Alexia?"
"No. Not yet."
"Don't use this method with her. She'll break your nose and remind you of why we have ranks."
"I understand." Shlara's eyes widened as she nodded. She grabbed the spoon and took a small bite of the mushy oat cereal.
We ate in silence for the next ten minutes. Shlara tested her luck and stepped closer to the map on the table so she could see what I studied. When I didn't lash out at her again her heart started to beat at a normal rhythm.
"You are different than I thought you would be," she whispered.
"You are a slow eater." I smirked at her.
"I thought you would be uglier." Her pulse skipped into a canter again and she gave me a charming smile.
"Why?" I almost laughed.
"The tales say that you kill dozens of Elvens with a wave of your hand. They also say that you sacrificed your soul and body to gain dark powers from the Dead Gods."
"Dead Gods? I've never heard of such things." I knew that the Elvens had some sort of religion, but I never felt a desire to learn about it.
"The Elvens worship them. I'm surprised you don't know more about them. They have a pathos and creation foundation. We weren't allowed to worship them of course, but I knew of them." She smiled and I noticed her body relax with the conversation.
"I find it hard to believe that Elvens think anything is more powerful than they are. In the tribe I was raised in, we were expected to worship Elvens. But now I don’t spend any time talking to them. I just kill them."
"I didn't think you would be so single-minded either." She smirked.
"Today I am."
"What tribe were you raised in?" she asked.
"It doesn't matter. Are you done with your breakfast?"
"No. You are right, I am a slow eater. Tell me about being changed." She took a quick series of bites and looked at me over her bowl.
"It hurts. Women say it feels like childbirth, only the pain is in your spine and skull." Her green eyes grew wide and flashed with worry. "I don't think you should be concerned though. The pain is temporary and Malek will take good care of you."
"Can I ask a favor?" She set her dish down on the table. I noticed it was still a quarter full. She probably needed to eat twenty bowls every day for the next four weeks to get her weight up to a healthy level.
Our eyes met and I was struck again by her beauty, even with the malnutrition affecting her body. I knew Malek would have his hands full with her. He had a soft spot for pretty girls and this one would make his head spin. If it wasn't already.
"I believe you are rather presumptuous, Shlara."
"I believe you are falling in love with me, Kaiyer," she said with a cocky grin. I laughed.
"Fine." I waved my hands at her in surrender and stepped away from the table. "What do you want?"