The cat watched from the cover of the large oak tree it was concealed in. Black as midnight, it was invisible in its perch in the darkness of the forest canopy. Golden feline eyes easily tracked the intruders as they crept slowly along the wide path below. Slightly ahead the panther could see others waiting both in the trees and on the ground. The differences between the two groups were obvious. While both groups wore shades of green and tan in an effort to blend in with the colors of the forest, the one, strictly men, tended towards mail for the common soldiers and metal plate for the officers with all wearing large bright insignia on chest patches while the other wore minimal amounts of leather armor and the markings of rank were merely small buttons sewn into the sleeves or shoulders of the men's and women's tunics. Moving closer would also have revealed the more subtle differences among the two parties as the group trying to walk quietly in their clinking armor and heavy boots were generally stockier and darker in coloring than the men waiting in the bushes for them to fall into their ambush. The men on the path were Tharins enemies of the group of Calani who waited a hundred feet away. In total silence the large cat slipped to a lower branch of the tree so that it could watch the expected battle more clearly, its bright golden eyes almost glowing in anticipation.
Reese cursed silently to himself while he waited for the Tharin soldiers to move into position. Fortunately his men were ready. Their position was so perfect and so well concealed that only gross stupidity could ruin it now. 'Good thing too' he thought 'I'm so busy worrying about that girl that I can barely concentrate on what I'm supposed to be doing.' He had sent, or rather tried to send princess Alean to the camp to wait out the attack. He had even taken the time to practice the arguments that he would need to use to convince the girl that as a princess her safety was too important to risk in a rather large, though minor, skirmish. The stubborn girl had listened for all of three seconds before snorting out a terse "Fine, then I'll find something better to do." and with that she had turned into the forest and promptly disappeared. Reese had tried to follow her but he knew that if she didn't want to be found she wouldn't be. All he could do was hope that she had at least gone in the opposite direction of the coming bloodshed. 'Why did I have to be the one stuck giving that little hellion her field training anyway.' The large man mused silently. 'Because King Dalor asked you to that's why stupid. With all the trouble she causes he still dotes that girl. If she weren't his niece I'd be tempted to just leave her in the woods somewhere and let her find her own way back.' Just as Reese was about to continue his silent tirade a small sound ahead of him caught his attention and he looked up to see the first of the Tharin soldiers coming into the clearing ahead. He took a breath to steady himself and raised his arm to give the signal to the archers to get ready.
The twenty Calani archers readied their bows and waited for their captain to give the signal. From their perches in the trees they could see the Tharins just starting to enter the clearing ahead. There were at least a hundred of them marching four abreast. Even though the Calani attackers only numbered forty men and women, some almost laughed out loud at how easy this was going to be. Tharins were noted for their strength and sheer numbers but not for their tactics. After heavy losses on both sides the Calani had found the weaknesses of the Tharin army and had orchestrated a string of defeats until they had finally forced them back to their own lands. Now the war consisted of numerous border clashes where the Tharins tried unsuccessfully time and again to beat their way past the Calani borders only to be forced back with great losses. For although the Calani had learned their lessons in dealing with the Tharins, the Tharins had evidently learned nothing in return. Whether through arrogance or a need for revenge the Tharin King still sent groups of his soldiers using basically the same tactics and formations as he had in the greater war of twenty years ago. And just as it was twenty years ago the Calani led them to the places where their heavy armor and horses and wagons would be a burden to them and then they attacked. And for whatever reason the Tharin soldiers still marched in nice straight lines with the emblems of their rank emblazoned in bright red crests on their chests making them seem more like slow moving target dummies than the soldiers they pretended to be. The only advantage they still had was their numbers, and even that was not enough to give them the victory that they craved so much.
Lesas watched the soldiers from her perch in a tall tree close to the end of the clearing. She knew that when the men below were all the way into the positions chosen for them that Reese would give her the signal. Once he did she would signal her archers to begin the attack. As his second it would be her job to see to it that as many of the officers as possible were taken out before their people on the ground began the direct assault. Since the mounted officers had the better protection of their heavy plated armor this would require careful shots to their heads and exposed necks. She quickly signaled the two women and one man she had picked out to assist in that goal. While Lyas and Kaira didn't have quite the strength with the bow as their male counterparts they more than made up for it with accuracy. She and the other archer had both strength and accuracy in their favor so she knew that she would have no problem. They had been through this before and her own personal set of tactics were simple. At the signal, Lyas and Kaira would take out the nearest officers and work their way to the rear. She and Merot would start at the rear and work their way forward. If they were quick, and they always were, by the time they realized what was going on most, if not all, of the officers would be dead. While they took out their selected targets the rest of the archers would be firing their arrows into the main group of the troops, whose cheaply made mail was no match for the steel tipped arrows propelled from the bows of the Calani archers.
Reese watched patiently for the remainder of the Tharins to enter the clearing. At the prospect of the coming battle, he let his worries concerning Alean fall to the back of his mind. A few moments later he was ready to give the signal. He looked to where Koros was stationed with his men and signaled him to get ready and then he gave the signal to Lesas.
Suddenly the air was filled with the strange hissing sound of twenty arrows being released at once. Almost before the arrows found their targets, the hissing of more arrows could be heard. It was then that the Tharin men realized what was happening. As a third flight of arrows rained down they turned to their officers for orders and found that they no longer had officers to lead them. Those still alive drew swords and tried to head back the way they had came only to realize they were in trouble. They could not retreat because their own wagons now blocked their way. They could not escape to the front or sides as those routes were now filled with the advancing Calani. Reese had given the signal to the men on the ground and now the hand to hand work would begin.
As the men and women on the ground began to move into the mass of confused soldiers, the archers above continued to shoot at those Tharins who were attempting to form up ranks against their attackers. By the time Reese and his twenty soldiers on the ground closed in the two forces were evenly matched.
The black cat watched all this with fascination. In just a few seconds the heavily armed and armored force was reduced to about thirty confused and leaderless soldiers. As it watched men moved from the cover of the trees and engaged the remaining Tharins. The Tharins tried to use their heavy swords to hack at the less armored Calani. From its place in the tree the cat witnessed the mistake the Tharins had made. The heavy weapons and armor made the Tharin soldiers clumsy and slow, a fact which the quicker less encumbered Calani took full advantage of. The fact that they also had the advantage of better and more intense training was also obvious in the way they moved and returned the attacks. The Tharins had no chance. The cat watched all this for a few more moments. For all of the Tharin dead and wounded it could only see one Calani that appeared to be hurt and even from its hidden place the cat could see that it wasn't serious. The cat slowly rose from its place and stretched then yawned before it quietly jumped to the ground and walked into the forest. No one saw it go.
Reese grinned wildly as he met the sword of the first Tharin in his path with his own. The grin grew even broader when he saw the reaction of the man facing him. While he had expected the Calani soldier to be tall, as most of their men tended to be slightly taller than his own people, he was in no way prepared for the giant he was now facing. At 6'5" Reese was much taller than most of his own people, he was also well muscled. That, along with the very very red of his hair and short beard, made the Tharin think of the demons told of in horror stories. He was a good looking man, though his height and coloring also made him very different. Reese had always been able to use this to intimidate people, sometimes unintentionally, and now he was in his element. The man died quickly, still wondering if it really had been a man that he had faced.
As Reese turned from the man on the ground before him he saw three Tharin soldiers coming at him from the side all at once. As he turned to face them he could see that the rest of his forces had the remaining Tharin well in hand. Most of them were already down, either dead or dying, and the rest soon would be as well. He completed the turn just as they began their rush to get to him. He spun to the side to let the first one pass and brought his sword up and decapitated the second as he tried to slam his own sword into the place Reese had just been. The third man quickly brought himself to a halt just in time to avoid the same fate when Reese reversed into a back swing. Now that he had one man in front of him and the other directly behind him Reese tried to sidestep to keep them both in his sight but his opponents weren't about to let the red haired giant get that advantage. Reese looked quickly about to see where the rest of his people were and it was then that he realized that he had moved away from them and that there would be no help coming his way soon. Just as Reese was trying to figure out which one to go at first he caught a movement from the corner of his eye and gasped. There coming up behind and to the left of the man he had let pass earlier was Alean, holding her short boken like a walking stick, as if she didn't have a care in the world. "Hi Reese." she called cheerfully. "Need a hand?"
Reese just gaped at her and found that he couldn't say anything. The two that Reese had been facing didn't have that problem. Seeing the small blond woman the closest soldier turned his attack on her while the second took the chance to rush the now distracted Reese. Alean sent a quick grin to the frowning Reese while she waited for her attacker to reach her. The sudden flurry of motion snapped Reese from his reverie. Turning quickly he just had time to bring his sword up to meet the one of the soldier running at him. The ring of steel on steel as Reese deflected the blow was followed by a grunt of surprise as Reese ran his sword through the man's chest.
Shoving the dead man off his blade with his boot Reese quickly turned back to engage the remaining Tharin only to see a smirking Alean standing over the now unconscious soldier. Her three foot long boken once again seemed like nothing more than a walking stick. A quick glance showed Reese that the short battle was over and that his men were rounding their prisoners into a group at the far end of the body-strewn clearing. Reese allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction before he turned his full attention to the Princess.
Princess Alean was one of only a few people that Reese had never been able to intimidate. Even now as he approached her she did not flinch but returned his angry stare with one of her own. With her small slim build and the sandy blond hair that curled slightly as it hung loose around her shoulders she looked like a child compared to the big man now in front of her. Wide green eyes in a pretty face, now slightly smudged with the dirt she had collected while sneaking through the woods, completed the childlike image. Despite this fact she knew that she had nothing to fear from him physically. She had known this man all her life and he was like family to her. Reese had been her fathers best friend since long before her birth. She had been able to continue her own friendship with the fearsome soldier after her Father's death when she had gone to live at the palace with her Uncle and two older cousins, where Reese had his own quarters as Captain of the King's Guard.
"Just what the hell do you think you're doing here?" Reese roared. "I ordered you to return to camp." At his shout the rest of the Calani looked to the sound and saw the Princess and Captain facing each other. By the looks on both their faces they knew that the two were about to clash yet again. Some surreptitiously watched the pair, waiting for the coming explosion of tempers. Most decided it was wiser and possibly safer to tend to the business at hand and tried to ignore the fact that the Princess had shown up on the battlefield in direct opposition to their captain's orders.
She looked up to the man now towering over her and replied with a roar of her own."I didn't think that was a good idea so I decided not to. Besides, from the looks of things you could use an extra healer right now, even a novice like me." Alean finished, indicating the wounded Tharins gathered at the far end of the field.
Reese counted to ten to try to cool his temper before answering, then he counted again but he was still furious with the equally angry young woman. The princess was an excellent scout and had, in fact been the one to first spot the Tharin force they had just defeated. She also had a talent for causing trouble. She used her ability to sneak and hide to her advantage and it was rare for a day to pass without some trick being played. The fact that she was never caught at it only served to increase Reese's frustration. Now here she was standing in the middle of a battlefield when she was supposed to be safely out of harms way.
Because of the nature of the ongoing war with the Tharins, every Calani was trained in warfare from a young age. This was what gave them the skills to wreak bloody havoc on their enemy while keeping their own losses to negligible levels. Reese knew it and so did Alean. That she was of the royal family made no difference. Every Calani was expected to render military service of some kind for a period of no less than three years. Alean would serve as a scout and a medic since she already had an aptitude for both.
"Fine!" He finally managed to grate out. "But from now on you'll do it my way. You'll follow orders just like everyone else. If you disobey you'll be put in punishment detail just like everyone else. Before that though, you will meet me in my tent after the evening meal. There are a few things we need to discuss. Go help the healers then assist with the clean-up." And with that he stomped off to get the reports from Koros and Lesas.
Alean watched him go with mixed feelings. She knew he was still angry with her and that the lecture he was going to give her later wasn't going to be pleasant. She also hoped that now he was finally going to give her the chance to prove herself and to learn even more. For now though, she decided not to worry about it until later when she would have the time to think about it in the privacy of her own tent.
The healers were already finished working on their prisoners by the time Alean reached the far end of the field, most of the Tharins having been killed outright in the short bloody confrontation. After having her offer of assistance waved off, she turned and walked back to where Lesas was directing the removal of the Tharin wagons. 'Now for the clean-up' She thought. As she walked towards the other Calani she suddenly remembered what was meant by 'clean-up'.
Clean-up consisted of removing the weapons 'and bodies----ugh' of the Tharin invaders. When they were done the only sign that a battle had been fought here would be the scuffed and bloody ground which would be washed clean with the next rainfall. In a few weeks the clearing would look as innocent as it had looked to this group of Tharins and would likely be used as an ambush point again, just as it had already been used many times on others that had passed through here before today.
Sighing softly to herself Alean walked towards the others. 'Let's get this over with. If I'm lucky I'll only have to pick up weapons'. She wasn't that lucky and by the end of the day the sight, smell and feel of all the dead had made her vomit twice. She was still feeling sick when she reached camp and approached Reese's tent. Eating, at that moment, was not an option. She decided that facing Reese would be preferable to embarrassing herself in the mess tent.
The fact that she was a princess didn't bother Reese. He had given other members of the royal family the same training that the Princess was expecting now. He had received his own training alongside King Dalor and his brother Almus who was Alean's father. He had also trained Dalor's sons five years ago. The same year that Alean's father Almus and his wife had been killed in a Tharin raid. No. Her skills weren't a problem. Since she was small she could hide for days at a time without ever leaving the Palace grounds. She had the makings of an outstanding scout and she was quickly learning the arts of healing as well.
His dilemma lay in the fact that, like a typical doting parent, her uncle King Dalor had made it clear that the Princess be kept as far away from any danger as possible. Requests from parents asking for special treatment for their children were common and a situation Reese could have dealt with. A request, actually an order, from his King was a different matter entirely. The fact that Alean herself had a distinct aversion to the bloodier aspects of the training only served to compound the problem.
Reese looked up as the soldier outside his tent announced his visitor. 'Here we go,' he thought as Alean left her boken at the entrance and stepped into the tent to stand before his desk. Taking note of her slightly greenish pallor, no doubt a left over from the clean-up detail, he motioned her to seat herself in the chair she was standing beside. "It's time for you to stop acting like a child" He began bluntly. Alean began to rise indignantly to her feet, her lingering nausea suddenly forgotten, her mouth opened ready to launch into a scathing retort. One look at Reese's scowl was enough to make her shut it again. She reseated herself and waited for him to continue.
Reese watched the girl struggle to control herself. If he hadn't been so angry with her he might have laughed at the expression on her face as she tried to remain calm in the face of this dressing down. After a moment Reese continued. "First, you chose to conceal yourself in a battle zone. No one knew you were there. If you had been spotted by the Tharins it would have ruined the ambush and that would have gotten a lot of our troops killed. If you had been spotted by our archers they could have mistaken you for a Tharin scout and that would have gotten you killed. This is the third time you've done this to me and IT WILL BE THE LAST," Reese ended in a shout.
Alean made a show of studying the hands folded in her lap as she listened to Reese. Now that the excitement was over she knew he was right about this particular point. The first times she had done this they had only been doing a little scouting and she had made it a point of only getting so close and no further because she didn't want to cause any trouble that could lead to the possible outcome Reese had just mentioned. This time she had not only gotten close she had walked right into the middle of it.'I wonder if now is the time to tell him that I've actually done this to him eleven times? No. I think it might be best if I don't tell him about it....ever.' Still she did feel the need to defend her actions so she quickly blurted out "No one could have seen me. The spot I was hiding in was..."
Alean looked up to see that, in his anger, the Captain's face had reddened to almost the same shade as his hair. Knowing that to say anything else would only anger him further and definitely increase the chances of seeing herself marched off the join the refuse hauling detail, she wisely closed her mouth and lowered her eyes once again.
"Second. You have no business being anywhere near the fighting. You did well enough knocking out that one man today. Remember though that in a full scale battle you won't have that luxury. If you had shown yourself any sooner you might have been forced to kill that man."
At this statement her brows furrowed slightly. She really didn't want to kill anyone and Reese knew it. One of the reasons she had chosen scouting, aside from her obvious aptitude for it, was the fact that she only had to observe the enemy rather than kill them. She had already made a promise to herself that she would do so only when absolutely necessary, so Alean merely replied. "Yes, Reese"
"Now that we've settled this," he looked at Alean to assure himself that she really was taking this seriously, "I'm going to repeat what I said this morning. From now on you will follow orders. No more tricks. No more sneaking off. Starting tomorrow you'll be under the direct supervision of Lesas. If you can perform your duties to her satisfaction I'll let you move up long range scouting. If not, then I'll see to it that the only thing you'll be scouting for is herbs for the healers. Understood?"
"I understand. Thank you, Reese." She said. She resisted the urge to round the desk and give the Captain a hug in gratitude. Here, in an armed camp, was not the place for showing her surrogate uncle signs of affection. Here he was her commanding officer. For the next three years she would be a scout in her uncle's army. The only time she would be allowed to acknowledge him as anything but her Captain would be when they were at home on leave. Instead she stood and waited to be dismissed.
Once Alean had left the tent, Reese called for Lesas. As she stood at attention, Reese took the opportunity to study his lieutenant. At first glance the woman seemed overwhelmingly average. She was almost as old as Reese and had been his second for twelve years. She was of middling height with short brown hair and eyes of almost the same shade. She was stocky in build and her long sleeved tunic hid the muscles that spoke of great strength from years of working with the bow. Since almost half of the Calani army was made up of women her military dress was not unusual. Only the buttons that indicated her rank and position within the Royal Guard indicated that she was more than she seemed.
"Sit down," Reese invited.
As soon as she was seated Lesas began to give her report of the days events, however Reese held up his hand and stopped her. "I had a talk with Alean," he began simply. "From now on she'll be reporting directly to you."
"That's fine. I've been keeping her close anyway. She gets into too much trouble otherwise. Not that it does any good, though. She can disappear faster that anyone I know," Lesas replied.
"She's promised to behave. Evaluate her. If she does well then I want you to start her on long-distance runs." Reese said.
"What?" Lesas exploded in surprise. "This is some kind of a joke right? She can't go a day without getting into trouble. Look, Reese, she's a great scout, but a ...... "
Reese interrupted quietly. "She was still green when she got back from the field. It's going to be a long time before she does anything like she did today."
"I guess not," Lesas chuckled.