The cat watched from its hiding place in the scrub lining the top of the low cliff. As black as midnight, it was almost invisible in the deepening dusk. The group approaching was unaware of its presence, even their horses did not sense the nearby predator. Golden eyes tracked them as they neared. The panther was silent and still as it waited and watched.
Kaia watched as well. The rise ahead looked promising. The small stream they were currently following ran almost to its base. They could camp there tonight and the small plateau would make an excellent look out point. She had been leading the small force through the desert for over a week and the heat and sand were making her miserable. Since they had found their way to the stream that morning Kaia was determined that tonight she would finally take a real bath. As she took in the faces of the men around her, she could see that they were even more miserable than she was, especially Darash her wizard. That managed to cheer her up a little.
Raneck had been careful to make sure that his men were prepared for desert travel, but Darash had refused to leave his heavy robes and furs behind. He had maintained that, as a wizard, he would be able to cope with the harsh elements. He was wrong. Now he was suffering more than the rest, and it showed in the permanent scowl and muttered curses. He was, however, careful to make sure that Kaia was out of earshot of the complaints. From his position at the rear of the sixteen man grou, he could see the sweat trickling down her face as well as the slight scowl that she wore. General Kaia was definitely in a very bad mood. When that happened men tended to die. Neither his status as a wizard, nor the fact that he was currently teaching this imposing woman to harness and control her own magic, would keep him safe if he provoked her right now.
Once they reached the base of the cliff, Kaia held up her hand to halt the men trailing behind her. "Dismount," she ordered, "We'll rest here for a few minutes. Raneck, I want you to take some men and see if you can find a way to the top of this cliff. If you can, I want a lookout set up. We'll be staying here until rest of the army catches up." Without waiting for the man to acknowledge the order, she turned her horse and rode away from the soldiers now sprawled on the ground.
The men watched her go with a sense of relief. She was very tall for a woman, at almost six feet. She was also very beautiful, with high cheekbones and a straight perfect nose resting above full lips. Her deep tan gave her skin an exotic glow which made her deep brown eyes seem even darker that they already were. Her mane of chestnut hair was tied back into a thick braid with a leather thong and if the sun were overhead the dark red highlights would have been visible. In another woman that shade of red would be compared to the color of wine, but this was General Kaia, when people saw it they were reminded of blood. For some she inspired their most erotic of fantasies. For most she was the source of their worst nightmares.
Despite the fact that she was a woman, she was stronger than any man of her height, her intense and continuous training saw to that. She was also the deadliest warrior her people had ever produced. Even though the learning of weaponry and warfare was usually forbidden to girls, Kaia was different. As the only child of the cruel King Barach she was encouraged to not only learn these arts, but to excel in them. She had more than excelled. At the age of ten, her father had called a banquet to celebrate the occasion of her first kill. It was a simple feat achieved by putting an arrow through the chest of a man foolish enough to refer to her as a "little girl". By twenty she had killed more men in single combat than any Alorian warrior in living memory. Among them were many Alorians who had made the mistake of offending the volatile warrior. She was also a brilliant tactician, just the knowledge that she would be leading a battle often caused an opposing force to break and run. Now, at twenty-four, she was a general in her fathers army and had been for two years. In that time she had earned more victories than all the other Alorian generals combined.
Kaia moved to begin her own examination of the hill before her. They had been heading towards this spot all morning, ever since they had noticed this relatively high place on the flat almost featureless desert around them. Urging her horse to a trot, she quickly moved along the twenty foot cliff. Her hope was that they would find an easy route to the top of this unlikely formation. If not, she would send some men with ropes and spikes to make the short ascent in the morning. In the week they had been out here they had yet to see any others. Even the main force was out of sight, having been left behind three days ago when Kaia had taken this small group to scout ahead. With luck the Tharin regiment they were moving towards would be visible from this vantage point and they would be able to check the progress of the rest of the men coming from the rear.
Moving further to the north Kaia came upon an area where the face of the cliff seemed to tilt to a lower level. Guiding her horse to move alongside the formation she pulled herself up until she was standing on her saddle. Bracing her hands on the rock wall before her she easily kept her balance as the horse shifted below. Once the horse settled she studied the area above her and was pleased to find that the top was within reach, with a sturdy bush conveniently placed to provide an additional handhold. Reaching up she quickly boosted herself up to the flat surface above her. She quickly rose to her feet and moved to a higher part of the small plateau. Except for a few insects singing in the sparse growth, she was alone, the other men having yet to find a path to the top. The obvious footprints of a recently departed predator went unnoticed in the darkness of the beginning night.
Kaia took in the view from this vantage point. Since it was now almost full night she could make out the light of fires coming from the south. Those were the campfires of her army which were following behind. To the north she could also see light in the distance. From the directions she had been given, Kaia knew that this had to be the Tharin regiment she was on her way to meet.
Three days later Kaia's main army arrived and a day after that saw them entering the Tharin camp. As Kaia, with her officers and Darash, made their way to the center of the camp they were met by a small contingent of Tharin officers.
"Welcome to the third regiment. I am captain Malek," was the greeting given by the small foppish man before them. "While your men set up I'd like to invite you to share a meal with myself and my officers," he said indicating Kaia's group.
He then lead them towards a cluster of large tents set apart from the main camp. As they made their way there, Kaia took the opportunity to study the Tharin captain. He, like the rest of the officers, was dressed in mail and armor. Though they were armored and carried immaculate swords, it was obvious that they were more for show than the serious work of a soldier. Kaia made an effort to hide her disdain. While it looked impressive, Kaia knew that the gleaming armor was too light to take any serious punishment and that the slim swords with their jewel encrusted hilts would easily break in a serious confrontation. The carefully trimmed beards and oiled hair marked these men as ones who had attained their positions through money and privilege rather than by earning them with work and experience.
Shifting her eyes towards Raneck, she could tell by his expression that he was thinking much the same thing.
Her musings were interrupted as they reached the enormous tent that was their destination. The first sight upon entering was a huge dining table laden with food. Curtains separated the rest from the view of the assembled group. As they took their seats, servants entered and began pouring wine.
Once all the cups had been filled Malek rose. "To new allies," he toasted.
Kaia raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing as the rest of the men echoed the words.
The meal seemed to last an eternity as Malek and his men bragged about their places within Tharin nobility. They were proud of the military commissions that they had purchased for themselves and the place it gave them in Tharin society. They were unaware of the thinly veiled contempt leveled their way by the Alorians who had all earned the rank they held.
The only point of interest during the meal itself was the obvious loathing the Tharins held for the Calanis. "That's our first objective," Malek had declared. "Before we are free to engage any other enemies the Calani must be taken care of."
" We only know them from stories. Since your war with them started there hasn't been any direct contact. What do you know about them?" Kaia asked.
"Not much actually," was the reply. "The war itself is old news so I won't bore you with that. The only time we see them is when we send our forces across their border. We know what they look like but that's about it."
"What have you learned from prisoners? Surely in the last twenty years you've found out more that just what they look like?" Raneck asked.
"They won't talk under torture and they don't make good slaves, and so we don't bother trying to capture them. We just kill them on sight." An officer seated near Malek responded.
"What about tactics? How do they fight?" Asked one of Raneck's lieutenants
"Mostly by ambush and hit and run," came the answer from another of Malek's men. "By the time we figure out what's going on the attack is usually over. It's like they're invisible."
"Any suggestions?" Malek asked while looking pointedly at Kaia.
"Not without more information. I could give you few ideas but it won't do you any good if you don't know anything about who you're trying to fight. Since defeating the Calanis is the first objective I'll need any maps and logistic information you might have. The first priority would be taking prisoners for questioning," Kaia stated while sighing inwardly. 'Great, I'm supposed to help them beat an enemy that they don't even know anything about, and they've been fighting them for twenty years!'
The rest of the meal passed quickly as each of the Tharin officers tried to outdo each other with stories of the ruthlessness and brutality of an enemy that few of them had ever seen. By the time the meal was finished many of Kaia's officers had begun to wonder if the stories had some truth to them. They had all seen what their own king was capable of. To imagine that the Calani could be as brutal was well within their imaginations.
Once the meal was finished Malek turned to Raneck and said. "Tell me captain, how does it feel to be under the command of such a lovely lady?" Though his words seemed innocent enough there seemed to be a second meaning. The silence that followed was deafening.
The glint in Malek's eye as he asked the question gave Raneck pause as he tried to formulate an appropriate response. A glance to his general told him that she had also picked up on the double meaning. Her slight smile was negated by the cold stare she leveled at Malek. He knew without doubt that had it not been for her promise to confer with this man, she would have gutted him on the spot. He also knew that if he didn't say something to put the man in his place that she might just do it anyway.
The other Alorians at the table knew this as well. As the Tharins glanced around the table with amused expressions the Alorians tensed in anticipation. The expressions of amusement became fearful glances as they suddenly realized that the battle hardened Alorian veterans were not amused. Malek shivered slightly as he saw his own death in the darkening eyes that still held his.
Amazingly he was saved by Darash. "I'm surprised Captain Malek. Surely our General Kaias reputation has preceded her. If you knew deeds as well as the rest of us, then I can guarantee that such a question would be unnecessary"
Malek turned an oily smile to the wizard. "Of course. You must forgive me. It is an unusual situation you must agree. Among my people women are...."
"Only useful for making babies," Kaia finished for him. Her faint smile was replaced by a sneer as she continued, "I have no interest in producing children Malek. But, I am quite good at producing orphans."
Malek paled visibly at the hint implied in Kaia's last comment. Swallowing audibly he could only nod in understanding as he acknowledged that the woman seated at his table was far more dangerous than any man he had ever met. He had thought that the daughter of King Barach would be a spoiled woman child, using her father's army as a toy for her own pleasure. Though he had heard of the stunning victories achieved, he had been sure she had merely taken credit for the work of others. Now, looking at the Alorians and their reaction to his veiled insult, he knew better. This woman was as deadly as the rumors said she was.
Raneck took the opportunity to belatedly answer Malek. "I've served under her command for two years now. In that time we haven't lost a single battle. The southern forces have brought in more land and tribute than the rest of the army combined. Can you say the same Captain?"
"No. I can't," he replied shakily.
Glad for the chance to change the subject he addressed Kaia. "That's why we invited you here. We have the men and the equipment but our training is.....lacking. As the good Darash has probably already told you, we are offering an alliance of equals. If we combine our numbers with Alorian skill we could create an unstoppable force. Between us Tharin and Aloria could own the entire continent."
"My father is interested, or I wouldn't be here," Kaia stated, "However he doesn't trust easily. I doubt that any decisions will be made quickly."
"Of course, that's why we're all here isn't it," Malek replied smoothly.
"I'm glad you agree," Kaia smiled, "Tomorrow morning I'll assign the men that will be joining your regiment. I expect you to choose ten men to accompany us when we leave the day after."
"What?" Darash and Malek sputtered simultaneously, "You can't...your father..." Darash stopped himself, his face reddening in frustration.
"Can't what?" Kaia asked dangerously, "Remember your place Darash. This alliance might have been your idea but I'm the one that's in command. Now," she turned her attention to Malek, "It's a simple trade. Ten officers each. In two months we meet here again and discuss what we've learned about each other. If everything seems in order I'll start training a small group. Then we'll go from there."
Malek frowned, "I understood from Lord Darash that the training would begin immediately. What you propose seems an overly cautious approach. We're already massing for an assault against Calanis, this delay could cost us."
"Lord Darash was mistaken. I'll make my decisions in my own time when I'm ready. As for the Calanis, that, at the moment, is not my problem. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some things to see to." Rising to her feet Kaia's men followed suit and with a small bow they exited the tent and returned to their own camp.
Darash, who had stayed behind waited for Malek to dismiss his own men before turning to him. "What kind of fool are you? If you hadn't insulted her like that....."
Malek interrupted smoothly. "Does it really matter old friend? We don't really need her, just her knowledge. You've been with her for five years now, surely you know everything she knows by now."
"Not by half," Darash snorted, "All those rumors are true you know. She's killed more men in single combat than everyone at this table combined. Your lucky she didn't kill you for that comment you made. Normally she would have," Darash turned a glare at Malek, "Until everything is in place you will stay on her good side. Another mistake like today could cost us everything. I won't risk that just because of a little pride."
Malek stood and bowed stiffly, "Yes, my Lord, as you command."