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A War of the Spirit
by Eileen Heintz
“Your warriors are shaken to their core, Queen Zilka.”
“Some warriors!” Zilka answered her army commander scornfully. “The best our vast country has to offer? World-renown for their skill and fierceness? They behave like children afraid of the dark!”
Zilka returned her attention to the harbor below, not attending to the comforting every-day bustle of the distant docks or the winding city streets in between them and her palace, but to the somber disembarkation of her warships. Far too few men emerged from the recently returned fleet. Those who did crept like slaves—not warriors! For the first time since his death, Zilka was glad her father had already passed to the afterlife, so he would not see this shame.
Commander Doone joined her at the window. His jaw clenched. When she turned to him he did not turn to her.
“Commander, where are my men?”
He bent his head away and shuddered. “Gone.”
She felt winter-like cold dance over her arms as her hair rose. She had grown up thinking this man as incapable of fear as her father, and had never had cause to doubt that young belief until now. What could make this lifelong warrior’s feet shuffle and eyes dart anywhere but to meet hers?
“Gone?” She raised one eyebrow in a look she knew was inherited from the late king.
“Taken.” Commander Doone met her eyes for an instant, then bowed his head. “No body to burn or bury.”
Zilka’s heart clenched. Their bodies must return to the earth for the spirit to pass to the afterlife. “Tell me more.”
He hesitated, but Zilka did not give time for an excuse. “If you do not, I will ask your men. Spare me the untrue and exaggerated rumors.”
Commander Doone sighed. He braced himself with one forearm against the window frame. He still would not meet her eyes. “The King—that is how our enemy is known, just his title—led his army himself. But you’ve never seen such an army.”
Zilka scoffed. “My own is nothing, apparently.”
“They are not spirit warriors.” A shudder ran through Commander Doone’s whole body, and for an instant he had the face of a small boy.
Zilka felt like a small girl. What was a spirit warrior?
“The King had an ocean of men. Each glowed like a spirit. Beneath the spirit-glow you could see someone unique—vastly different even in ethnicity—and each wore glorious armor like nothing I’ve ever seen.
“I sent our weak and injured first, as usual, to break the enemy ranks and expose them to our archers. They didn’t break, but there was enough cover for brave Helath to reach the King and bring blood from his side.
“Then the King raised his sword and impaled Helath through the heart.” Commander Doone made a sign of honor to the dead.
“Helath should have died instantly, but for a full minute he writhed on the sword, as if trying to escape. The battle fully ceased to watch. Finally, he stopped moving.”
Zilka, no stranger to tales of battlefield violence, still shuddered. She also made the sign of honor to the dead.
“Then the King’s spirit came on him.”
“What?” Cold prickles raced over her limbs again.
“When the glow enveloped Helath’s body, he stood on his own feet. He was still himself, but in their glorious armor. He looked right at me, then joined the King’s ranks!”
“He fought for their side?”
“Not just Helath.” Commander Doone’s eyes were far away. “Every man they got with the glow turned on his brothers. Those men fought with more zeal against us than the King’s own warriors. The glow spread so fast, I ordered a retreat to save the few we had left.”
“And we have no bodies to bury.” Zilka wasn’t sure if she was more sad or furious. Her legendary warriors had been stolen, flesh and soul! “Did you at least take their dead in retribution?”
“Ten thousand of our men refused the glow when killed. We have their bodies, but we could not kill a single man of the King’s.”
Commander Doone shook his head. “The only blood shed on their side was the King’s.”
“We cannot possibly be outmatched! It’s this cursed magic. If we can end it—"
Commander Doone cut her off, speaking each word with importance. “The King has dealt us a violent blow. He will follow our retreat immediately to capitalize on our weakness.”
Zilka studied Commander Doone, struggling to parse his meaning. “He would not dare come here?”
“Why not? Our best warriors did not stop him. They are his now, or dead.”
“There must be a way to take them back!”
“My sworn duty is to protect you, Queen Zilka. You must flee.”
“Nothing is gained by you making a stand here. Go to safety. I will defend this city to the last.”
“You will defend this city?” She bared her teeth, “As queen it is my duty and my life! How dare you usurp me? I will never give up until this King is destroyed. He will pay for his affront to me! Get out of my sight!”
Commander Doone bowed and withdrew.
Zilka took his place at the window, staring but unseeing. Her army was gone, no bodies for their families to mourn. If not properly cared for in death, if not placed into the earth as a seed for the spirit in the next world, then there was no hope of meeting that person again in the afterlife. What happened to the energy of those imprisoned by spirit magic? Was only the body kept? Zilka could not place hope in that. And even then the spirit would still be trapped in this world!
She pounded the windowsill with a fist. Her adversary had stolen or killed her men, but his could not be touched? Cruel and unfair universe!
Tears blurred her vision.
Zilka whirled from the window and snatched up the ornate ceremonial dagger her father had given her on his deathbed.
She held it flat against her chest, the way she wished she could hold him just once more, but never would. She had solemnly sworn to preserve his kingdom, to die rather than surrender. If she fled now, how could she face him in the afterlife? Losing in battle was disgrace enough. She could not hold her head up with honor before her father unless she fought to the last.
It had torn him to shreds to die of disease and not in battle. She had repeatedly reassured him that his illness was battle enough for their ancestors to be proud, but her words had not reached his heart. Her father would expect her to fight to her death.
But could she risk being captured by the King’s spirit magic and losing her afterlife?
The intensity of her grief dulled as she considered the situation.
Commander Doone was right; winning an outright battle was impossible after her loss of warriors. Especially against untouchable opponents. Perhaps with time Zilka could discover how to defeat the spirit magic—after all, ten thousand men had fought it off! But if the King was already on his way, they had no time.
Zilka could face death bravely enough if she knew how to refuse being taken, but she could not risk her afterlife. She fought the rising panic of being trapped by defeat on every side. Only one way avoided the disgrace of running like a coward!
Zilka turned her father’s dagger perpendicular to her chest. She took a deep breath, readying herself. Images of the coming moments flickered through her head. She envisioned her blood gushing down her purple dress, a thick river of wasted life.
The thought sparked a memory.
The King’s own blood had spilled on the battlefield.
Zilka’s hand tightened on the dagger’s handle as she brought it down to her side.
A knocked sounded at the door. Commander Doone reentered and bowed. “The King has sent an emissary, Queen Zilka.”
She laughed without humor and steeled her resolve. There was yet a way to win this fight!
“I will give audience.”
Zilka sat behind her desk, in her study, with Commander Doone beside her. They had agreed immediately on two points: including any nobles in this conversation would inspire worse rumors than not including them and, secondly, an empty throne room would not communicate strength. Commander Doone had hesitated over the symbolism of the enemy gaining entry to the private power room of the palace, but Zilka’s plan relied on her enemy thinking she was prepared to admit defeat.
When the servant announced the King’s emissary, Zilka studied the faintly glowing young woman. Beneath the eerie glow she wore a magnificently constructed white gown embroidered with simple patterns of gold. Slightly older than Zilka, she seemed vaguely familiar.
The emissary made a sign of respect, but did not bow. Commander Doone cleared his throat in disapproval.
The woman’s eyes darted briefly to him. “I am unable to follow every custom of respect, Your Majesty; I bow only to the King.”
Zilka rapidly calculated whether or not she should show offense to this deliberate—but not unexpected—disrespect of her authority. It did sting; though customary, Zilka was not often the disrespected. However, in politics as in chess, her actual feelings could not weigh in her reactions.
The emissary did not wait for Zilka’s reaction. She opened a scroll. In an official voice, she proclaimed. “The loving and peaceful King desires peace with you. He sends a writ of mercy. All who surrender to his rightful reign will be shown favor. Those who resist will remain his enemy.”
She rolled the scroll closed and met Zilka’s eyes like an equal. In her own voice she added, “He expresses sorrow at the deaths of your soldiers. The King is a good man and wise leader. You can trust his word. Please, do not resist him.”
“You call him a good man? And he is sorry for my fallen warriors?” Zilka was so angry she couldn’t even laugh bitterly. “What of the soldiers whose bodies he stole, so they cannot enter the afterlife? Nothing to say of them?”
Zilka closed her mouth on the rest of the words rising in her chest. Anger did not serve her goal. She gripped her chair to give the feeling a place to go.
“The King did not seek this war. You sent your warriors to engage him just after he sent me to speak with you. Unfortunately, my travel was delayed.” The woman’s face was sympathetic. “I once thought as you did, Zilka. When he arrived in my kingdom offering peace, my family fought to our deaths. I was the last, and I ruined the land so he could not use it.”
“But even after all of that, he had mercy and spared me.” Her smile changed to regret. “It will take generations to heal the land and rebuild Marga. If we had accepted his first offer of peace, we would have avoided so much pain and misery. Please, listen to his words, Zilka. Don’t reject him.”
Of course Zilka had not waited for this King to be at her shores before attacking! As her father had taught her, she had dispatched warriors as soon as Commander Doone had determined there was a threat. But Marga? She knew that country.
Retha smiled. “I didn’t think you would remember my face. It has been so long since we played together as children.”
Zilka rose, ready to embrace her. “I have not received a letter from you in nearly a year! I had no idea you were at war, or I would have sent aid.” If she had, their combined forces could have held back this King who had ruined Retha’s land and enslaved her with his magic.
The thought of the King’s magic stopped Zilka from opening her arms.
Retha didn’t appear to notice. “My letter is en route. I wrote just after finally accepting the King’s offer of peace. When he revealed you were mounting an attack, I volunteered to speak to you in person.” Retha smiled sadly. “I had hoped my letter would arrive in time to prevent your warriors’ needless deaths. I am sorry we were both delayed.”
Zilka studied Retha closely through the glowing spirit-magic. “What has he done to you, Retha? This King killed all your family, but now you serve as his emissary?” Aside to Commander Doone, she whispered, “The spirit magic controls her mind. We must find a way to free her!”
Retha laughed. “Zilka, peace! My letter explained everything, but now I will—"
“I cannot trust a word you speak while you are under his magic.”
“My mind and will are still my own. We are not puppets, Zilka.”
“You are the last of your family, Retha. How could you give up everything? How could you surrender?”
Retha’s lips tightened with displeasure. “Fighting to the end was a tragic mistake. Everything is already his. If you do not give when he asks, he will take. My family would still live, but we chose for him to take. Now our kingdom will be a wasteland until my grandchildren are old. I wish for you to avoid this fate, my friend!”
“If he does not control your mind, then you have joined a cult.” Zilka could not believe this was her childhood friend. Retha of Marga had been a hardened woman determined to forge an empire. She would rather have died than give up her throne.
“A cult!” Retha’s glower was familiar. “Ridiculous!”
“You say everything is his! But this land has belonged to my ancestors for long ages.”
“The King gave this land to your ancestors. They misused it, as did my ancestors. If you will not yield to him, he will give it to someone who will care for it rightly!”
“He claims to be ancient? You are mad!”
“I speak the truth! Listen, Zilka!”
They glared at one another, breathing hard from holding back more angry words. How familiar from childhood! Their fathers used to intervene here, joking about strong-willed daughters growing into warrior queens. Later, Father would privately praise Zilka for resisting the older girl’s dictates, but scold her for losing control.
Zilka was equally furious and appalled with her friend. Of all people, she would have expected Retha to reject the King’s spirit magic. If Retha had given in, how could Zilka hope to withstand the King?
Retha closed her eyes, her expression pained. “Forgive me, Zilka! An argument was not the King’s intention. I’m just his messenger and make mistakes. He truly wants peace with you.”
Zilka gauged Commander Doone’s reaction. His stone-soldier expression usually revealed little, but his eyes were pinched by fear.
Retha’s eyes begged for Zilka to accept her words.
Even after losing control of this insane conversation, somehow Zilka still held the power. She showed the smile she felt. “Forgive you? Of course.”
Retha’s whole body relaxed.
“I will meet your King on the hill outside the city in a week’s time and hear him speak about peace.”
Retha’s face lit up. “I’m so glad! Accept his offer, Zilka. It is the best way.”
Zilka forced her smile to stay in place. “I will listen.”
Retha left with a light step, in a halo of warmly glowing spirit.
Zilka sat heavily. Her emotions settled in her stomach like a cold, heavy stone. She must save her country from the King’s army and free her friend from this mad cult. And she must resist falling to his spirit-magic herself.
Commander Doone cleared his throat. “You will surrender?”
“Never.” Zilka straightened. “I have a plan, Commander.”
Zilka stood alone on a hill outside her city, watching the King stride through his amassed force. They parted readily for him, but reached out to touch him like friends, not subjects. He greeted them back, showing no impatience or disgust for their familiarity. What kind of king was he, to allow this behavior? Or did his spirit on them compel it? The thought disturbed her. Retha has assured her they were not puppets, but Zilka was not entirely convinced.
The King had seemingly brought his whole army with him. The spirit-armored hoard sprawled all the way from the coast through the rich basin valley leading up to the capital city, covering the entire pastureland that fed the nearest five cities. But this display of comradeship lessened their intimidation. Was the King so arrogant he didn’t think he needed it?
As Zilka waited for the King to approach the hill to speak with her, she wondered why he had accepted her directions for their supposed truce with no negotiation. Did he still fear the strength of her warriors? Or did he have a clever trap planned as well?
Zilka took a deep breath against the fear building in her chest. She touched her concealed dagger and let the air out.
There was no need for him to plan a clever trap; it was obvious his force was greater. This joviality with his stolen warriors was mere gloating, saying she was no threat and intimidation was unnecessary. As Retha had said, he could take whatever he wanted.
Let him think her defeated, beneath his notice! That meant his guard was down. Good. Zilka felt the sprouting of hope and allowed a little gloating herself. He had no idea what was coming.
Commander Doone had fought vehemently against Queen Zilka’s plan, holding to the end that she should flee. Her country needed her alive, and did she not fear for her own afterlife? She had finally snapped that she would rather not go to the afterlife if it meant facing her father after forsaking her duty as queen.
So she had prevailed and put her plan in motion.
Zilka resisted the urge to look at the surrounding hills where Commander Doone was hidden with the remainder of her army, to fall on the King the moment his spirit magic was gone. They would kill his men and free hers—though looking over the vast army, most of the King’s warriors appeared to be captives. Current camaraderie or no, they were unlikely to continue fighting once freed from his spirit’s influence.
Zilka gasped. The King was patting the head of a tiny spirit warrior—a young child, barely able to walk!
She looked again and saw family groups. Of course there had been women who wanted their men back! But when they had begged the King for their husband’s and father’s bodies, he had taken them too. And made them and their children warriors! Even their infants. Had this King no mercy?
Zilka descended, burning with hatred. She was no longer afraid of what she was about to do.
The King met her at the edge of his army.
“Welcome, Zilka. Let us speak of peace.” The King smiled kindly at her, glowing so brightly it was hard for Zilka to look at him.
She would not show weakness, though, even if his shining appearance made her insides heavy with fear. Zilka tried to meet his eyes with defiance but was shocked to see he looked somewhat like her father—though her own father had never smiled so welcomingly.
The association made her heart cold. Yet another cruel trick of the universe, that it would seem like she was killing her own father!
In spite of her silence and defiance, the King’s smile had not changed.
“You see before you an unarmed man. I mean no harm to you or your people.” His voice was powerful, but pitched softly; their discussion was between them, not for his whole army to hear.
“My offer of peace is for your life. Your land is already mine; all of your people already belong to me.”
Everything was already his? Blind rage shook Zilka’s heart and then her body. So he counted her defeated already? He so smugly thought her people would not fight back? Unmatched arrogance!
She screamed every foul word she had ever heard and lunged, slashing her dagger wildly.
She felt it connect and shrieked in triumph, though her gut turned over at the tearing weight of metal through flesh.
Jumping back, Zilka released the dagger when it would not come easily with her.
The King stood silently. He had not even cried out at his wounding, though his side oozed blood and a water-like fluid.
His neutral, solemn expression turned sad. “Zilka, there was no need for that.”
In spite of his death-wound, he didn’t stagger, and the glow surrounding him didn’t even flicker. He held her dagger in his right hand, though not at ready.
“You should be dead.” She had meant to yell, but the words came out in a child’s disappointed whisper. She sounded so weak! She was so weak.
She had failed.
Failed Retha, failed her people, failed her father. She should have fled and lived the rest of her life as a coward!
The King smiled again, the same kind smile. “Let us begin again, Zilka. Let us talk peace.”
She gritted her teeth. She would not be a coward! She would go down with the defiance of her father and her father’s fathers against all who had tried to defeat them! She would not fail them in her last act!
Zilka charged at the King, yelling a war cry. She had a vague idea of snatching her dagger back, trying again until she killed him.
His hands rose to meet her, as if to stop her. But she didn’t stop. Her father’s dagger cut cleanly through her ribcage and pierced her heart.
Father? Zilka cried out through the pain. Will you guide me into the afterlife?
But he didn’t reach out for her soul.
Instead, white-hot agony squeezed her heart, ten times worse than the pain of the dagger’s wounding. Zilka realized this was the King’s strength advancing against her spirit, and she pushed against it. His power stopped advancing, though she could feel how small and fragile her strength was, hilariously flimsy against his superior might. Why had he not crushed her? He easily could. Was he toying with her?
Again, Zilka cried out for her father’s aid, but he was not there.
The King’s strength remained, however. Its presence was oppressive, though it did not consume hers.
Zilka could not match it.
The moment she stopped pushing, the King’s strength gently enveloped her. Her agony eased. She could take on an army!
Though the pain was bearable now, she could still feel the wound and dagger in her chest. Strangely, though, Zilka could see her dagger in the King’s hand. Miraculously, it was clean and unstained. With each movement she made, the spirit dagger sent pricks of strength through her heart, which lessened the wound’s pain.
“What has happened to me?” she asked her King. She was covered in his spirit, wearing the most beautiful, regal gown she had ever seen. It was blindingly white, embroidered with pure gold.
Why was she not dressed for war, like the rest of them? Zilka looked at the King’s army, but no longer saw warriors in armor. Instead, she could see the families, clothed like her, speaking and laughing together. She had never seen such love and care for one another!
The King took her hand in both of his, the way her father had when she was little. “You are my daughter now, Zilka.”
“But I tried to kill you!” Zilka clung to his hands, though he had made no move to let hers go. “I wanted to free your people from you.”
“You can now see they are already free.”
“I am too!” Zilka began to cry. She sobbed with grief for her anger and defiance, cried with astonishment at the mercy she had received.
When she finished, the King wiped her tears away.
She turned back to her city. “We must take my whole kingdom! My army! Everyone! Conquer every land!”
The King laughed with delight. “Speak to your kingdom about me, Zilka. Though you are their queen, you cannot speak for them in this. I do not take people by force. Only by love. If they resist my spirit, they die in the way they choose. My war is not won on the scale of kingdoms; the conquest happens in each person’s soul.”
Zilka tried to imagine what she would say and how her subjects would react. Fear rose in her heart, and Zilka felt the spirit dagger pricking. “What if I fail you?”
The King held her right hand in both of his. “I will not leave you to this task alone, Zilka.”
The fear did not leave entirely, but peace mingled with the pain.
More of Eileen’s work can be found at eileenheintz.com
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