It was the day of simulated battle between their squad and Pôtheem’s. The two squads traveled a mile into the woods around Bethjuedt, where each staked out a headquarters. Using swords, arrows and spears without heads, and strategy, the two would battle for the championship.
For ten years, Îra’s squad had been the one to win every fake battle. They were so far undefeated. It was a fact she took great pride in.
“Today, we are on the offensive,” she told her quísah. “You two will be scouts. Report back to me when you learn of their location. You ten will be our frontal attack. I will be with you. The five of you will come up from behind. Both groups attack at the first sound of my horn. The rest of you, split into two evenly-sized groups and pick a leader for each. One will come in on either side at my second sounding of the horn. I will be with the frontal assault. If I fall, Charnekk takes over. The Marquísah is with the back group. Is that clear?”
“Ought we to spread our forces so thin?” Aichan said. “You remaining six, join the frontal attack. I will give you a signal so that we attack without warning. The marquísa will wait in ambush with our rear assault. At my call, they will rise up and we will smash the opponent between us.” The six moved over to join the ten.
Îra glared at Aichan. “On the contrary, we shall follow my original plan. Quísah, to your posts!”
She strapped her sword on and grabbed her shield and horn. She did not notice Aichan pull her side attackers aside and instruct three of them to join the frontal assault and three to join the rear assault with instructions to choose a leader.
The scouts returned with the location of Pôtheem’s squad. Îra sent the squad to find their places with stealth. As she waited for her quísah to find their spots, she peaked through the trees at Pôtheem’s encampment. They were raising blockades and standing watch.
She heard a seagull’s cry. That’s strange. We are too far from the coast to have gulls. Then she noticed her quísah were attacking. Aichan! Rather than be left behind, she sprinted for the clearing and lifted her horn to her lips, blowing her battle charge. Pôtheem and his squad grabbed their weapons and turned to face the onslaught. Quísah on both sides sat down “dead” as they were hit once with an un-tipped arrow on the chest or head or twice elsewhere. Then the swords began ringing. A person was undone if tagged in a few designated areas by the flat side of an opponent’s sword or if they lost hold of their own weapon.
It seemed to Îra that her quísah were everywhere. They are improving, she thought with a smile, disarming one of Pôtheem’s knights.
Finally, only a handful remained on each side. It was time for her final crush. She put her horn to her lips and blew.
No one came in response to her call.
Then she realized Aichan had been with the front group, and the soldiers she had assigned to the sides were already there fighting. And had been the whole time.
“What are you doing?” Aichan yelled at her. “Put the horn down and fight.”
“Who do you think you are? What have you done!” she yelled back, working towards him.
“I gave my squad commands that would help us win.”
“I know my opponent, and that is why I gave them the orders I did!” She was furious.
“I think I’ve fought in enough battles to know the best way to organize my squad.”
Îra yelled with rage and swung her sword at Aichan. He noticed just in time to block her, and their fight began.
“This is not YOUR squad, it’s mine, too.”
“I am the oldest, which makes me the senior leader,” he shot back.
“You flaunt my authority to the whole squad. Where I come from, that doesn’t earn you honor.”
“But putting my squad’s best interest first does.”
“Are you saying I don’t care about their safety?” Îra raged.
“I’m saying you only care about winning to prove your point,” he accused. “You’d let all of your quísah fall in battle if it would mean making you look better than a man.”
“I would not! I’m their leader; I protect them—I love them!”
“Actions speak louder than words,” he quipped.
Pôtheem and the two squads watched them fight each other. He let his quash put the rest of their quísah out of play, then bid them stop. Trying to get their attention, he called, “Îra?”
“Not now, Pôtheem!” she yelled.
Aichan batted aside her sword and swept at her midsection. She sidestepped and he taunted, “Is this all you can do, Marquísa?”
Her fury and rage mounted. “You mock me in front of my quísah!” she screamed. Their duel grew deadly serious.
At last, Aichan stepped backwards into a hidden rut in the ground and dropped his guard slightly. In her anger, for a second Îra considered the possibility of actually injuring him; but instead she deftly swept her blade in and with a twist disarmed him. That done, she turned to face her remaining adversaries. Pôtheem nodded at them to recommence and charged her. “Surrender!” he called.
“Never!” she replied. He jumped towards her, carving the air with his sword intent on knocking her grip loose with the force of impact. Just in time, she rolled out of the way. As he landed and caught himself, she swung backhand and brought the broadside of her sword squarely across his back, knocking him down and out of the game.
She fought feverishly against the remaining six quísah, refusing to admit defeat; but they were finally too much for her. She felt a sword slap her calf and dropped to her knees with a cry. The woods fell silent.
Pôtheem was the one to break the silence. “What is everyone waiting for?” he asked with a strain in his usual cheerfulness. “The practice is over. Shake hands and return to Îderie Lacon.”
Without a word, both squads stood, formed into lines, and shook each other’s hands, then quietly dispersed into the forest. Aichan squinted at Îra, who still knelt, head down, in dirt, then made his way back to the castle.
When they were alone, Pôtheem offered his hand to Îra. She looked up at him, and he smiled at her. “Shall we head back, Îra?”
She smiled wryly at him, unable to keep a straight face in response to his contagious grin, and accepted his hand to stand. “Thanks,” she muttered.
As they walked together, he said, “Sorry you didn’t win today.”
“Me, too. But at least I lost to you.”
He laughed jovially. “If it’s any comfort, I’ve lost to you three times before.”
She chuckled. “Yeah.”
After a few moments of easy silence, he ventured to ask, “What happened out there?”
Îra scowled. “I told the quísah to do one thing, and Aichan contradicted me. I thought we settled it that we would go my way, but he went behind my back and did it his way, so I had no idea what was going on.”
He hesitated before asking, “Did you try to reach a compromise?”
“No, of course not! I know what we needed to do, because I’ve been against you before, and he didn’t. As you can see, his way did not work. He’s always doing that, blatantly subverting me in front of the squad. It makes me so mad!”
They did not talk again until the city came into view. Pôtheem touched Îra’s arm and said, “I don’t want to fight or hurt you, but I have to say this. Your hate for each other isn’t right. It’s not like you to be so hateful towards someone. Aia would not want things this way. I know you do not want a partner, but for your own sake and the sake of your squad, can you not try to get along together?” His eyes were uncharacteristically full of sorrow in his earnestness.
His concern convicted her. She gave him half a smile. “Thanks, Pôtheem. I’ll try.”
After cleaning up, she went looking for Aichan to apologize, Pôtheem’s words still in her head. On the ground floor, she heard his voice coming from the other side of the wall in the courtyard. She moved to approach him, stopping first to hear what he and the people with him were saying.
“How can you hate Îra?” one of his companions asked. She recognized the voice as Dueûl’s, another squad leader.
“You mean you actually like her?” The voice was Aichan’s, fraught with disbelief.
“Truly, we do.” This time, Cîeles answered. “She is an amazing girl. I have never known her equal.”
Aichan snorted. “Amazingly stubborn and uncooperative girl. Unequaled in pride and foolishness, maybe.”
“Nay, marquísah, I will not let you dishonor her so,” Dueûl protested.
“Certainly not!” Cîeles agreed. “If you have a grievance, then speak it, but do not utter slanderous names without cause.”
“Oh, so you want examples?” Aichan asked. “Where shall I start? Maybe my first day here, when she told me that it was her squad and I was not wanted, when she refused any of my advice on training our quísah, when she told me to go back where I came from? Or how every day since then, she has dominated our squad and left me no say in anything? Or how this very day, she refused my superior knowledge of the battlefield, which led to the ‘death’ of our squad? Or maybe how she went ballistic and attacked me when she should have been fighting our opponent?”
Cîeles’s voice was grave. “These are serious charges. But I cannot believe Îra is so wholly to blame as you suggest.”
“You have never worked with her, have you?” Aichan asked. “I tell you, she’s the worst man-hater I have ever met!”
Îra’s blood boiled. Apology forgotten, she stormed into the courtyard. “I am not a man-hater,” she told him, fuming. “Dueûl, Cîeles, forgive me for intruding, but I cannot let this—this man besmirch my character so to my peers. I will have you know, marquísah,” she turned to Aichan, “that men have been some of the most important people in my life. I love my father and my grandfather Caïlleb, and my uncles Aichan and Anímnah[i]. But they taught me a woman is not some weakling to be shielded and protected all her life, that women ought to stand up for their beliefs, just as men do.
“I’ve spent most of my life working for what I believe in, and everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve run into roadblocks and opposition. Always, it’s men like you, who think women are somehow less intelligent or capable than men and should be put into submission to men. Who obviously haven’t read or taken into account Uncle Aichan and Grandpa Caïlleb’s letters to the Elkanians, where they say that in the eyes of Aia-Thâes, women and men are equals, not one in submission to the other or less important than the other. That’s why I cannot tolerate chauvinists like you.”
“What are you doing eavesdropping, marquísa?” Aichan asked.
He didn’t even listen to a word I said! Stupid, stupid man. She calmed to a deep, smoldering hatred. “For you information, I came to apologize for today, but clearly I am not the one who needs to apologize, as I’m not the one who has been gossiping and slandering my partner behind her back,” she accused. She spun on her heals and stalked away.
Just before she was out of earshot, she heard Aichan say, “That, good men, is why I cannot stand her.”
[i] Caïlleb, Aichan, and Anímnah: Caïlleb is short for Caïllebelkan, “Filled with the Spirit of Aia-Thâes;” Anímnah means “Worthy Servant.” These three men are the leaders of Thâessav Elkan’s followers and are of great importance in the beginning of the Elkanian movement, the growth and spread of the followers of Thâessav after His death, revival, and ascension.
 Aia: “Great One/Greatness Who Is (present, past, future “is”);” the name of the Thâes, the God, of Maraiah.