A bloodcurdling screech tore through the sky.
On the ground below, the harsh clash of metal on wood dimmed as soldiers on both sides of the muddy field paused long enough to glance up at the shadow passing behind the thick grey clouds that hung heavy over man and beast alike. Warhorses, trained to remain calm and obedient even in the face of blood and explosions, screamed and rolled their eyes in fear as the scent of scavengers reached them.
Wisp leaned back, trying to get a glimpse of the shadow wheeling above the battlefield. It was too big to be a single creature; there had to be two, maybe even three olitau bats circling above, waiting to feast on the dead left below. On a hill above the fighting, Wisp stood next to a golden pole, a ragged pennant bearing the arms of the Company of Shields flapping in the pre-storm wind. The fabric was muddy and travel-worn, the bright vermillion background upon which a silver shield stood flanked by twin black antlers almost grey, the arms themselves faded to almost imperceptible – Wisp had found the need to get this close simply to make them out. She turned her gaze back down into the valley, watching as the very end of a battle drew to its close. There seemed to be more men in red-plated helms than anything else, so she assumed that meant the sigil overhead was that of the winners. Scattered all around were bits of shields and armor bearing a veritable rainbow of colors and symbols. She recognized the six bright yellow birds of the Canerry family out of Bur Gruve, the dela Rivière teal swordfish from Laq d'Arjentyn in the south, even the green prancing stag of the Farstriders out of Harte to the east.
A small furrow appeared between her brows. What on earth were powerful families from all over Ereld doing in a place like the Sekret Doliny? Nobody ever bothered them here in Pertania. It’s not that the state wasn’t important – it was, after all, the main agricultural hub for the whole kingdom – but it had never held much in the way of political power or use as a point of leverage. Wars came and went just as quickly, regimes raised and toppled in the passing centuries and the farm country never saw nor heard any hint of the ongoing calamities until a messenger from the new king would appear with declarations acknowledging Pertania’s neutrality and recognition of its importance. The Petani family had watched over the fertile, mountain-ringed hills and pastures for generations, and nobody seemed interested in uprooting them. They had such a long history of successfully feeding almost all of Ereld that most people assumed it was better to just let them keep on doing so than threaten the livelihood of an entire continent.
Wisp smoothed her dove grey skirt over her legs, fingers lingering on the golden wheat stalks embroidered all over the garment. She liked this skirt – it was almost always hot and muggy in Pertania, so she was grateful for the light, almost sheer fabric and the structured gold sleeveless top that ran across her chest and bared her midriff. Her mother would be furious at the state of her hem and her conspicuous lack of shoulder coverings, but Wisp wasn’t bothered. Her sisters could worry about being ladylike; as next Laurenne, she had more pressing matters to attend to before taking up embroidery and other lady’s crafts. Not that she was attending to those responsibilities, either. A small dagger hung off her hip, a quiver of unshot arrows on her back and a longbow held loosely in her hand, Wisp was supposed to have been practicing her archery while her instructor was away visiting his family in the capital, but the sounds of fighting had drawn her in. She glanced up at the tattered flag hanging above her again.
The Company of Shields was a volunteer faction, a militia made up of the third- and fourth-born sons and daughters of the families of Pertania. No matter this distinction, they trained as soldier from beyond the mountains might and busied themselves with border patrols – even though they generally weren’t ever necessary. Members of the Company – they weren’t knights, as no king had bestowed upon them any kind of title – had made appearances at several tourneys, some of them even earning slight fame in the lists; Wisp’s own cousin Attar was considered a celebrity when it came to swordplay in the rings and his comrade-in-arms Cylmar had earned fame after knocking three highborn princelings flat off their horses before revealing her curtains of flame-red hair and bright smile.
The attacking force had been small, easily crushed by the defenders in red, but that made even less sense. The Canerries were sworn to Herra Viisas Pertanen, who knelt alongside Patron Pierre dela Rivière and her father to the High King of Ereld, Iarll Ceannaire, in Capital Caasimada. They couldn’t attack a place like Pertania on their own without risking retribution from the highest authority in the land, so why were they here?