BOOK OF WATER

CHAPTER 1

 

Bradamante dropped to her knees in the sand, gasping from the sword that had pierced her lung.

 

“This isn’t a game,” her teacher told her.

 

“I know.”

 

“He’ll try to kill you.”

 

“I know.”

 

Bradamante heaved to her feet and swung her sword at Manat. The older woman easily parried it aside.

 

“Tighten your mind,” Manat said.

 

“I am!”

 

Bradamante attacked once more, fierce and precise, but it was as though she’d never learned to fight. Manat dodged and blocked, then plunged her own sword through the young woman’s heart.

 

Bradamante fell back hard against the white sand beach, her dark eyes staring up at the cloudless blue sky.

 

“What am I doing wrong?” she asked in frustration.

 

“Dying.” Manat offered her hand. A sympathetic smile creased her weather-worn face. “You’re tired. That’s enough for tonight. Let’s go inside.”

 

Bradamante accepted the hand that hoisted her to her feet. She brushed sand from the back of her brown pants and tunic. Manat wore similar clothes in faded black, but there wasn’t a speck of sand on them. Bradamante had never made her fall.

 

It had been a terrible training session—one of her worst. Manat was right: she felt exhausted. Not from the physical effort—normally her nighttime visions of training with Manat at the white house left Bradamante feeling strong and restored. But tonight too many worries preyed on her mind.

 

Still, even a bad night at the white house was better than where she had been spending her nights lately.

 

Her body currently slept on the hard ground in a leaky tent in the rain. She only had a short time left before Jara would wake her for her turn on the night’s watch. Bradamante intended to enjoy the warm sun and peaceful surroundings as long as she could.

 

She walked in silence beside her teacher, savoring the feel of her bare toes digging into the warm sand. White gulls called to each other as they swooped lazily over the bay. A moist breeze blew in from the water, mingling with the sweat on Bradamante’s face.

 

She glanced aside at the older woman. The two had not trained together for some time. Bradamante had spent many nights at the white house alone before finding Manat waiting there for her tonight. Her reappearance lifted Bradamante’s heart.

 

Manat always looked the same in the visions: tall and strong, in her mid-forties with dark auburn hair and deep-set hazel eyes, a warrior with the intensity and vitality to battle an opponent half her age.

 

In real life Bradamante knew her to be decades older. The last time she saw Manat, she looked stooped and white-haired and burdened with recent grief. Bradamante often wondered how her teacher fared now, a year after Samual’s death in the fire that destroyed the White Temple.

 

But they never spoke about it here. Manat seemed content to forget, if only during their brief hours together.

 

As they neared the white cottage at the edge of the beach, Bradamante glanced up the hill behind it. A trail led from the house to a lush meadow and then a dense forest beyond.

 

Grazing in the meadow was Bradamante’s large gray mare, Egalite, looking as fit and well as ever.

 

It was a sight that could still bring tears to Bradamante’s eyes. During the many months when Egalite suffered and recovered from the spear wound to her chest, Bradamante found hope seeing her here, uninjured and strong.

 

“Does Egalite have these visions, too?” Bradamante had once asked Manat. “Is she really here?”

 

“If you and I are,” Manat had answered, “why shouldn’t she be?”

 

Bradamante hoped it was true. She could never forget—nor forgive. She still revisited the scene over and over in her mind, sometimes several times a day: Lord Ganelon galloping toward them, his spear held low, Bradamante realizing too late what he meant to do. Egalite screaming, her neck stretched out, legs collapsing beneath her. The horse lying motionless on the muddy field while Ganelon turned his attack to Bradamante, cutting and stabbing her with a brutality unlike anyone else’s in the tournament.

 

That Bradamante not only survived, but ultimately defeated the king’s high commander was a testament to Manat’s training. And though Ganelon lied to King Carleman afterward, claiming he merely wanted to test the girl’s skill and courage before allowing her to join the army, Bradamante knew without question that Ganelon had intended to kill her and that she had fought that man for her life.

 

She had done her best over the past year to stay as far from Lord Ganelon as she could. Her brother, Rinaldo, used his position as her immediate commander to accept assignments that would keep his unit in the field.

 

But Bradamante knew that one day she would have to face Lord Ganelon again. This time she would be prepared.

 

For now, though, a more immediate threat weighed upon her mind.

 

Bradamante followed Manat into the house. As she crossed the threshold, her training clothes transformed into the long white robe and thick wool socks she always saw herself wearing inside. Her long curly hair that had come loose on the beach now lay roped in a thick braid down her back.

 

She looked exactly the same as she always did in the white house, ever since she first answered Manat’s call when Bradamante was only twelve. Now, seven years later, she was growing ever closer to becoming the young warrior in her earlier twenties that she saw herself as in the visions.

 

That young warrior fought by instinct. She knew how to control her pain. She seemed, at times, to be fearless.

 

Right now, Bradamante was not. Her recent worries had proved that. And she couldn’t afford a bad night of fighting, not now when she needed her skills to be at their sharpest.

 

Manat understood her mind.

 

“He’s just a man,” she said, handing Bradamante a mug of steaming tea.

 

“Is he?”

 

“Flesh and blood, like you,” Manat said. She sat cross-legged on a cushion in front of the fire. Bradamante sat in the white rocking chair beside her and stared into the flames.

 

Rumors of the enemy commander Rogero had spread throughout the west over the past few months. At twenty-one, he was the youngest high commander in any of the kingdoms. People said he was a sorcerer. The greatest warrior they had ever seen. He rode a magical horse that could disappear before your eyes.

 

He was ruthless. He killed for sport. He slaughtered without mercy. Some even said he could drive his enemies mad and force them to kill themselves or each other.

 

He commanded an army of thousands—perhaps tens of thousands, depending on the report—and they could travel at inhuman speeds over impossible terrain and conquer multiple territories in the same day, even hundreds of miles apart.

 

Over the course of the summer Rogero’s army had marched steadily from the east over the plains, claiming villages and territories that had been freeheld for decades. And now, if the rumors were true, they were marching toward the vast mountain range that separated the plains from King Carleman’s empire in the west.

 

The question was where exactly Rogero would attack next.

 

In anticipation, Lord Ganelon had divided the king’s army among a variety of strategic locations: the three major mountain passes; the roads into and out of towns that provided food and supplies to the warriors; and the various towns and lands owned by Lord Ganelon himself. Being high commander had its privileges.

 

Bradamante, Rinaldo, and the rest of their unit were currently encamped at one of the mountain passes, along with a larger division of soldiers led by a more senior commander, Orlando. All together they were a force five hundred warriors strong.

 

Not nearly enough, if the rumors were true.

 

“Is Rogero really a sorcerer?” Bradamante asked her teacher.

 

“Yes. Very skilled.”

 

That was far from the answer she wanted. “How can we defeat him?”

 

“He’s just a man,” Manat repeated.

 

Bradamante took a sip of clove tea. She knew better than to ask Manat an obvious question. Her teacher could dance this dance for a long time. What she needed was a fresh approach.

 

“Is he coming to Monarch Pass?”

 

“He is,” Manat confirmed.

 

Bradamante’s heart sped. “Soon?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“When?”

 

Manat breathed in the steam from her own mug. “Ask another question.”

 

Bradamante suppressed a groan. It’s not always good to know your future, Manat had told her before, but Bradamante disagreed. The more information she had, the better she could prepare.

 

But it was an argument she knew she would never win. She had tried before.

 

Instead she asked, “How can we defeat him?”

 

“By remaining awake to your opportunities,” Manat said. “And that is all for now. Jara is here.”

 

Bradamante felt a gentle jiggling of her foot. Immediately the vision dissolved. She left the sunny warmth of the white house to return to the rain and cold of the camp.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jara said, crawling inside the tent. “I always hate to wake you.”

 

Bradamante rubbed an eye. “Of course you should wake me. Anything happening?”

 

“No. Rinaldo thought he might have seen something, but…” She sat on the blankets and began pulling off her muddy boots.

 

“But what?” Bradamante prompted.

 

“It wasn’t anything. He never saw it again.”

 

Perhaps a day ago she, too, would have dismissed it. But now she reached for her own boots and quickly dressed. Normally on night watch she wore her simple leggings, undershirt, and tunic, but this time she added her leather chest armor as well. She crawled out of the tent and tied it behind her, leaving Jara curled beneath the woolen blankets, already on her way to a deep sleep.

 

Bradamante hurried to the makeshift corral where Egalite hunkered in the rain with the other horses. The mare nickered and trotted toward her. Bradamante patted the strong gray neck and led her horse out to the trail. She grasped a hank of mane and pulled herself up the way Manat had taught her years before. She still preferred to ride Egalite bareback whenever she could.

 

Then the two threaded their way in darkness up the trail to the top of the pass.

 

A short distance beneath the ridge Bradamante found Bayard, her brother’s horse. She left Egalite beside him and hurried on foot the rest of the distance up the hill.

 

She found her brother braced against a boulder, peering over the top. She crouched beside him.

 

“You saw something?”

 

“I thought so, but…” He shook his head. “I’ve been staring at that same patch of trees down there for the past hour. I never saw it again.”

 

“Manat said Rogero is coming here soon. She might have meant tonight.”

 

Rinaldo knew as well as his sister how real the visions with Manat were. He never doubted them anymore.

 

“Your eyes are always better than mine,” he said, pointing down the hill to where a flat expanse of meadow met the dark line of trees.

 

Bradamante stared, all of her senses on high alert.

 

She saw nothing. Just the shifting veil of rain and nothing more.

 

And then suddenly there it was: movement.

 

Her breath caught. Rinaldo saw it, too. They both watched as a shape emerged from the trees. Then a second shape, then a third.

 

“Go tell Orlando,” Rinaldo ordered. “Wake the others.”

 

But Bradamante didn’t move.

 

“Brad—”

 

“He won’t listen to me,” she said. “You know that. You have to send someone else.”

 

Ever since the revelation that the warrior who defeated Orlando at the tournament was a girl—and that King Carleman had invited her into his army despite it—Orlando had made a practice of refusing to acknowledge Bradamante’s present. Even when she stood in front of him, speaking directly to him, he looked right through her. For such a large, powerful warrior as Orlando, the behavior was small and petty, but he persisted nonetheless.

 

Would he continue the game if Bradamante brought word they were under attack? It seemed absurd, but Rinaldo couldn’t risk it.

 

He glanced once more at the now-empty field. The shapes they had both seen just moments before were gone again. But Rinaldo did not doubt that they had been there.

 

He pushed away from the rock. “Tell the rest of the watch. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

 

He hurried down to Bayard while Bradamante set off across the ridgeline to warn the others guarding the pass.

 

He’s just a man, she reminded herself as she raced through the dark, her heart beating wildly in her chest. Flesh and blood. Only a man. She had fought men before and won.

 

But none of them had been a sorcerer.

~~

Rogero sat calmly on the back of his horse. It had been a long night, but worth it. He had pushed his men through the dark and the rain, up steep hillsides layered with precarious rock, then through woods so thick with undergrowth they spent hours on foot leading the horses instead of riding. The men must be exhausted, but they didn’t know it. Rogero had already convinced them they felt fresh and well-rested, and that the rain was barely a drizzle.

 

 

An hour before he had instructed one of his warriors to leave the shelter of the trees, show himself for a moment, then return where he couldn’t be seen. When nothing came of it, Rogero sent out three more with instructions to linger longer.

 

Now Rogero waited. He wanted to see what King Carleman’s men would do.

 

There was no sign of them, but he knew they were there. He had already visited the camp the day before to survey their numbers and assess their strength.

 

He could win here, easily.

 

It was almost disappointing.

 

But he would make up for it by defeating the enemy here first, then appearing suddenly at the next guarded pass by midday and defeating Carleman’s army there, too. Then it was on to other territory and more victory, with a surety that had become all too routine.

 

The truth of it was he was bored.

 

There. Finally. A few riders coming over the ridge.

 

“Here they come, boys. Beautiful night for it. When we’re finished, we’ll have a feast.”

 

That brought a rousing cheer before the men mounted their weary horses and charged onto the field.

 

Accompanied by a thousand new warriors Rogero created out of air.

~~

“I’m telling you what I saw!” Rinaldo shouted. “Bradamante saw it, too.”

 

In her dream Jara heard Orlando shout something back, but she couldn’t make out the words. She drifted back to sleep.

 

Some time later she heard shouting again. This time she groggily came awake. There were voices outside her tent. Men’s voices. Her body instinctively clenched. She pulled the blanket higher, wanting to bury herself away.

 

But then she caught the impulse and forced herself to stop.

 

A warrior wasn’t afraid. A warrior listened. A warrior watched. A warrior surveyed the situation, made bold, brave decisions, then acted without hesitation.

 

Jara was no warrior. Not yet, anyway.

 

She listened harder to the sounds: feet squelching through the mud. Orders relayed. The pounding of hooves in the distance.

 

Jara threw off her blanket and shoved her feet into her boots and tumbled out of the tent.

 

Rain continued to fall, but at least the sky was beginning to lighten. Dawn was near the brink. Jara took in what her eyes could tell her.

 

All the activity seemed confined to one side of the camp: Rinaldo’s side. Over in Orlando’s area, very few men seemed to be stirring.

 

She called to a soldier she knew hurrying past.

 

“Hilyard, what’s happening?”

 

“Commander says we’re under attack.”

 

“Why isn’t everyone going?”

 

Hilyard jerked his head toward Orlando’s side of camp. “That one says he don’t believe it. Sending his own scouts first. Won’t take Commander’s word for nothing.”

 

Never a man to waste words, Hilyard spared one more coarse one for what he thought of Orlando. Then he set off again toward the horses.

 

Jara hesitated, looking around for direction. She wished Bradamante were there.

 

But the decision was hers alone. She crawled back inside her tent, grasped the sword Rinaldo had given her, and then raced with the others to the corral.

 

Her sturdy chestnut mare looked agitated from all the commotion. Jara slipped a rope around Filla’s neck and led her away from the crowd, speaking kindly and softly all the while.

 

“Shh, Filla, settle.” She stroked the mare’s side and waited for the animal to calm. Then she saddled and bridled her and mounted from a nearby stump.

 

She was only halfway up the trail to the pass when she saw Orlando’s two scouts riding their horses hard down the hill. Jara quickly slid from Filla’s back and pulled the horse off the trail.

 

The men said nothing as they thundered past. They didn’t even seem to notice her. Jara liked it that way.

 

She hesitated again, wondering whether she should continue up to the pass. Obviously something serious was going on, or Orlando’s men wouldn’t be in such a hurry to report.

 

If their forces were under attack, Jara thought, what could she do? She had been training with Bradamante as much as possible over the past several months, but her skills still felt very primitive. With all of her other duties, Bradamante could usually spare only about an hour a day to teach Jara some new technique with the sword or a knife, or how to fight on horseback, or how to defend herself without any weapons at all.

 

Jara had duties, too, washing and mending the men’s clothes. It was the only way Rinaldo could justify bringing her along. But it meant she had precious little time to learn what she wanted to learn. As generous as Bradamante was, teaching her every day, it never felt like enough.

 

Jara hungered for so much more. She wanted to be braver, stronger, better. She thought all the time about that night in Gibeah when Bradamante and Manat killed all those terrible men and saved Jara’s life.

 

Could she ever be that fearless? Would she be any use at all to Bradamante or Rinaldo or anyone else when faced with an actual battle?

 

Filla tugged at her reins as she lowered her head to graze. The rain had finally stopped, and dawn crept under the clouds.

 

I’ll never get better if I keep running, Jara thought. If she could help her friends in any way, she would.

 

She climbed back onto the saddle and urged Filla up the hill.

 

For the rest of the ride Jara rehearsed in her mind how she would slice and cut with her sword. How she would attack, defend, what tactics she would use, how hard she would fight alongside her friends.

 

But when at last she stood upon the top of the ridge and gazed down at the carnage below, Jara realized that all of her plans were nothing more than fantasy.

 

This was real, and it was bloody and violent, and she could offer absolutely no help at all.

***

BOOK OF WATER, Chapter 1 excerpt, ©Robin Brande 2016