Thayne walked into the mess tent and stopped mid-stride when she saw Uncle Azriel sitting at one of the tables chatting with the few Anglëtinean warriors she had in her force, their swift, singing Anglë’lylel almost weird to hear given how staunchly Mother refused to acknowledge or speak her native tongue, even though she wasn’t anathema to the Race like Uncle was, never mind that most of her force was required to speak Common outside of private conversations held in personal tents.
Although seeing Uncle here wasn’t as much of a shock as it had been that very first day it was still odd to lay eyes on someone she had only seen every-so-often growing up and heard a thousand and five stories about. But she was growing more accustomed to seeing him since in the last two months he and his Qishir had appeared in the camp several times, the showings more frequent as the days ushered the Festival of the Flesh ever closer. It was an unspoken yet known agreement that that was the day they would march upon the City in full, that that would be the night when her secreted handful of warriors within the City’s walls would strike from within. Shaking the thoughts of battle from her head as she was on break from strategy planning, she went to get her midday meal before she joined Uncle and her warriors at their table, greeting them flawlessly in Anglë’lylel before requesting they switch to Common for the sake of those around them.
“Apologies, General,” one murmured, Zariyael, a tall neodrach with white eyes, hair, and wings though ey often kept those brilliant wings hidden outside of battle. “We greeted as is tradition in our native tongue and got carried away.”
“The fault is all mine, Thayne,” Azriel added, looking almost sheepish. “I have not had the opportunity to speak Anglë’lylel on a conversational level in years and it is good to hear it so flawlessly spoken by fellow natives.”
You don’t even question that despite being anathema to the Race, these fellow Anglëtineans treat you no differently for that, do you?
She waved her hand dismissively. “No apologies are needed,” she raised an eyebrow at her Uncle then, “though if you’re here am I correct in presuming Rhyshladlyn is also somewhere in camp?”
Uncle grinned at her and nodded. “Of course, Thayne. He’s on the training fields. Where else would he be if not at my side?”
Thayne groaned. “Again, on those fields. I’m beginning to wonder whose army this is,” humor colored her words, taking the sting out of them even if she wasn’t entirely joking with her statement.
“Yes, you know very well why he is continuously risking exposure by being here, why he’s risking the lives of your warriors to be here to train them. And it will always be your army, Thayne,” Azriel responded casually, the words a reprimand but wholly lacking any bite for which she was grateful. Only those who knew him well would catch the scolding those words contained bereft as they were of any tone or inflection.
“I heard that he continuously trains us because he knows how the Lord King’s own warriors will fight and can teach us how to best them properly,” Anrèhn piped up, her silver-blue eyes wide, like she hadn’t meant to speak but couldn’t take the words back.
Azriel nodded at her, face open just enough to show she had done nothing wrong by speaking as she had.
“He trained every last warrior in the garrison of Shiran City, each one being required to stand against him without falling for a set time limit. If they succeeded, they got their sword. If they failed, they were banned from the garrison but were allowed other jobs within the ranks of the Lord King’s army or as security throughout the rest of the City or the outlying parts of the kingdom.”
“But he is basically retraining us,” Ryel commented, eyes the orange of a camp fire narrowed on Azriel but not in an malicious way. “Almost as though we are not trained correctly, like he fears we are weak as we are now when we are the most fearsome army in the Worlds.”
Well, that was the most diplomatically worded complaint against a Qishir I have ever heard. I’m actually impressed.
Azriel took a sip of the water in his mug before humming thoughtfully. “It isn’t that he thinks you are all weak or anything of the like, more that he knows his own abilities and he trained those in the City’s garrison, in the garrisons of every other Sinner Demon city and town and village, to be good enough to stand at least two handfuls of time against someone of his caliber and in my millennia of life? I have never met anyone as strong and terrifying on the battlefield nor heard of any akin to him.”
“I understand that and am grateful for it,” Thayne spoke up around a bite of the turkey sandwich she had chosen as part of her meal. “But what I do not understand is why he is helping with this now. Where was he for those months you were all on the run? He dropped off the known magickal spectrum and physical one as well. Surely it would not have been too difficult to find us on our march here to train us then? Or even join us before we departed Zhalharaq.”
As she watched, Azriel’s mismatched eyes grew dark as he stared off into the middle distance. It was a look of one who had seen horrors unimaginable and was trying to find ways to put it into words so those who hadn’t seen what they had would understand. And it was unnerving to see it on the face of the one warrior she had always looked up to, the one she had aspired to be like, to gain the approval of, even though he had only been in her life for perhaps half a decade before he was made anathema to the Race as a whole and went deep underground to escape the fallout. He had always seemed so unflappable when she was younger, even after she grew up and learned the truth of his life insofar as what Mother told her and allowed her to learn, he seemed as strong as an ageless mountain. And to see him now with that look in his eyes, a look stronger than any she had ever seen even on her own face? It was rather frightening. She didn’t interrupt his thoughts though, didn’t say anything, just quietly ate the remainder of her meal and mouthed silent thanks to the rest at the table for doing the same. They may not be as dark about the jaw as she and Uncle were, but they were dark enough to know that kind of look when they saw it. It was an instinctual knowing all warriors had, no matter how many battles they’d fought, how much death they’d seen or made in their wake. That look? It was one they all knew because it stared at them in some aspect or another when they looked in the mirror after every battle they survived.
“He was recovering from committing matricide,” Azriel finally spoke, making them jump. Thayne hadn’t expected him to speak at all, he’d been quiet for so long.
“We knew he had done that, but recovering? It was justifiable from what stories I’ve been hearing,” Jahel commented, head tilted to the side with a questioning frowning twisting at his full lips, green eyes the color of a sun-dappled forest canopy full of a sharp intelligence that even a century after meeting him still made Thayne’s stomach flip.
“Aye, it was justifiable given Azhuri was in league with Anislanzir but that doesn’t mean it affected my Qishir any less for the rightness of his response. His mother knew of the atrocities that un-male husband of hers was visiting upon their son and she did nothing to stop him. Instead she aided him by feeding the Lord King information necessary to try and help break Rhys,” Azriel replied, turning those haunted, striking eyes onto the younger warrior who swallowed hard under the weight of them but didn’t flinch or look away. “This came on the heels of learning he had been gone for weeks while Anislanzir tortured him, skinned him half alive, shattered every bone in his wings before locking them halfway in his body and unable to fully extend or retract, raped him, shattered the bones in one of his feet, and anything else one can think of to break his mind. And still Rhyshladlyn remained unshakable. Even when that bastard put a healing curse on him, even when it took his life for all of a brief moment, Rhyshladlyn came back and was still whole. But what nearly broke him? Was learning that one of only three people before I came into his life that he thought was on his side had been a snake in the grass the entire time. And he killed her for it without a second thought,” Azriel let out a deep breath, one hand rubbing over his face. “I was merely a witness to the act and the aftermath and even I don’t think there is ever a way to properly recover from something like that.”
Silence fell over the table and Thayne realized then that the entire mess tent was quiet, several warriors having shuffled closer to listen to Azriel’s words, wide-eyed and filled with renewed respect for the Qishir that walked among them, treated them like equals, acted like he was nothing more than another warrior, one who would fight by their sides and do everything he could to see that they returned home alive and in as close to one piece as was possible. It was one thing to hear stories and rumors about the Grey Qishir but another entirely to hear the Truth from the mouth of one who had been at his side for nearly all of his life. Because Rhyshladlyn, while not quiet about what he’d lived through and done and been part of, was also not one to just blurt details of his childhood out to anyone, not that Thayne could blame him. Though if it had been she who had gone through even a fraction of what he had? She wouldn’t have lived to tell a soul about it. But she wasn’t built for surviving that kind of trauma. Some were, some weren’t. She was in the latter category.
“He really… he really went through all of that?” Thyl asked, walking over from one of the nearby tables. “However does one survive such horrible things?”
Azriel shrugged one shoulder. “As for your first question, Thyl, aye, he did go through all of that and so much more but that is not entirely my story to tell. As for your second question?” Azriel rose to his feet, a wicked grin lifting one corner of his mouth. “Come with me to the training fields to see your answer.”
Thyl replied with his own grin and fell into step with her Uncle while Thayne just looked on, bemusedly, for several moments before she, too, rose and made to follow them.
Because just like that the tenseness of the atmosphere following Uncle’s anecdote was gone, scattered like leaves on the wind and she didn’t doubt he had done so purposefully. For while this would always be her army, these warriors and soldiers were Rhyshladlyn’s people. These were the Dhaoine that were putting their lives on the line to aid him in a cause he had spent his entire life up till that moment practically fighting alone. For the first time Rhyshladlyn didn’t have just those he couldn’t afford to lose fighting at his side, moving as pieces on the chess board that was burning slowly from the edges in with him trapped in the middle. Now he had armies at his back and his flanks, ready and willing to die for him if only he would acknowledge and accept it.
But those were thoughts better suited for another time. For now she had training to watch and conduct. For now she had a lesson to attend on the training fields.
After all, she loved watching Rhyshladlyn teach; it was intoxicating to hear his voice in tandem with his movements. And even though she was older than the Qishir by centuries, even though she had far more literal and figurative experience both on the battlefield and off it, she learned something new every time he was on the training fields, every time he was in her camp.
And she doubted this time would be any different.