It wasn’t Tarmon Gai’don. It wasn’t even close. But it was one of the greatest battles the north had seen. Years later, when the stories and the songs went around the campfire, they would speak of how Weir, Lord Major of the Shienaran Lancers, had fought three Myrrdraal at once. They would speak of how Lieutenant Kark had led a handful of soldiers against five great hordes of the Ghar’ghael, and used every chokepoint in the Winding Road to win against impossible numbers. They would speak of how Lieutenant Neveyan had single-handedly drawn a hundred trollocs back deep into the Ruined Keep with a mesmerizing battle dance, dodging and destroying as he went, and giving the soldiers of Shienar time to regroup.
The commanders fought tooth and nail that day. They were vastly outnumbered but there was hope. Lord Kajin had received the pigeon a day ago – the White Tower was sending reinforcements.
And so Lord Ragan had taken his scouts deep into Tarwin’s Gap to stem the onslaught of trollocs pouring south. Only a handful remained to stand guard over the Dusty Road while sharp-eyed urchins kept an eye on the battle from the Dusty Tower, passing along reports to Lord Madin and Lord Agelmar, who were poring over the battle strategy in the war room.
One of them was a swift-footed wisp of a girl called Isabel, barely thirteen. She had been found as a baby by Footman Nash, who was patrolling outside the northgate of the town of Lockshear. There were bears and worse not far away, Nash knew. And so he had taken her back to the inn, with no thought but to return her to her mother.
But no mother had stepped forward. Instead, every day when he came back from the fighting, the death, and the devastation caused by the war, he found himself back beside her makeshift crib in the local wisdom’s house. He found himself talking to her about how Lancelaut had beaten him without armor or shield in a spar or how a Green sister had danced all night at the tavern with a wealthy Cairhienen Lord and the next morning every one of her eleven Warders was riding out of the Malkier Gate astride a fine Domani Razor, with their pockets none the lighter.
To all this Isabel had but one answer – a gurgle.
The day came when she turned two, and he arrived as usual at the wisdom’s house to find her haltingly stepping toward him. Her tiny legs eventually gave way and she fell where she stood, near his foot. Then she crawled towards his feet and burped. When he bent to pick her up, feeling as if his heart would burst, he heard the wisdom wryly say, “I can keep mixing you those red vials you supposedly need or you could just take her to Fal Dara.” Nash couldn’t stop smiling for a week.
Isabel grew up in the barracks, and the soldiers got used to the quiet girl who would slip away every time the conversation grew too raucous. She liked to talk to the horses in the stables. She befriended the healers who came to visit. She sat by Master Uno as he trained his students. When the Blight was calm and the soldiers resting, Isabel ran around and played like any other child. But when the fighting came south, like every child who was raised in the Borderlands, she had a part to play.
This was the girl who now looked to the south, watching for the reinforcements. There! The Tower was coming with their allies, banners streaming in the air, their horses riding hard up the Fal Dara road, almost at the Junction now. Isabel turned instinctively to Four East on the Dusty Road, where her father, now a Lieutenant, was battling a fist of trollocs who had been trapped by Lord Kark’s forces. It was no contest, and Isabel watched him turn in triumph to acknowledge Lord Hackett, whose brainchild the manoeuvre had been.
The laughter hadn’t quite left his eyes when a ball of flaming fire crashed into his chest. For Isabel, time slowed, would have stilled if she could have willed it. For this to not happen. Every moment of her training burst into sudden understanding as she watched Nash fall to the ground, as lifelessly, as carelessly, as inevitably as a stone tossed over a mountain.
Dimly, from a part of her brain that kept ticking like the beating of a heart, she heard shouts of “close ranks” and “it’s the dreadlord, Rhahr”. Dimly, the part of her brain that continued to breathe, continued to live in a world where her father was not, took note of the fact that the road was overrun by another fist of trollocs, this time led by a tall, commanding man in a sleek black coat. She found herself running down the steps of the watch tower, found herself throwing aside her bow and arrow, found herself pushing through the crowd, past the legs of the soldiers falling back, found herself kneeling in the dust before her father’s body, found herself letting out a breath she did not know she had been holding; now that she was at the only destination she ever wanted to be anymore.
She traced his cheek with her hands, the battle forgotten. Her life flashed before her eyes, dim and nebulous like a half-remembered dream – a life of holding her father’s finger as he taught her to walk, of being carried on his broad shoulders while he pointed out the gate defences of Fal Dara or the tall trees in the forested borderlands, of being sung to sleep even as the trollocs howled and snarled outside the Malkier Gate, of being rushed to the wisdom for a little scratch from her pet hawk, because her father couldn’t bear to see her in pain.
What was once Nash was a still body, as if life hadn’t quite left him, as if any moment now he might turn towards her, one more time, and laughingly chastise her for looking so serious. Isabel touched his arm, held his fingers, wished for the slightest pressure from hands that had always clasped hers so reassuringly. She did not know if it was pain searing through her, breaking her heart into little pieces, or love. She didn’t notice the tears falling on the ground, nor the shadow that fell across her. Dimly, she saw a glint as a dagger was drawn. It was the man – Rhahr – the dreadlord dismounting from a red-eyed stallion.
She rose instinctively. She knew what he was about – he would skin her father’s head and then the trollocs would dance and roar at the trophy.
Her grief was momentarily put aside, replaced by fury. And even as her anger rose, she understood finally. This was the fight, the only fight that mattered. This was the border, the line they defended. Every Lancer knew that line – and it began and ended with their lives. Her hand shifted from her father’s fingers to the hilt of his sword which lay inches away. It was heavy, it felt awkward to hold, but she raised it nonetheless and stepped over her father’s body, stepped towards the dreadlord.
“Over my dead body,” she said. She didn’t care how high-pitched her voice sounded, or that she had to crane her neck to see his face. It didn’t matter that she was a child. She was a soldier who would hold her ground. This was what she was born to do. This was how she would die.
The trollocs howled and sneered, converging even closer. Rhahr only smiled and made a small, mocking bow, “Then die before your time.” A fireball coalesced near his fingers and hurtled in her direction. So fast that she had no time to blink, let alone move her sword. For one instant she felt only relief that she would join her father so soon.
And then just as the fireball was almost upon her, it evaporated, blocked by a thick shimmer of air. Rhahr’s head snapped up, only to swerve quickly as three fireballs swept past him at lightning speed. Isabel lowered her arm as realisation flooded in. The Tower had come. The Tower had finally come.
Around her swords were flashing as men in cloaks of shifting colours, cons with the Rising Sun of Cairhien, and red tabards of the Andoran cavalry cut through the trolloc hordes. And through that throng, Isabel saw three women astride on horseback. Their hands outstretched, each face ageless, determined, tense.
Horns were blowing, shouts and screams rent the air, and the trollocs were pulling their hordes from the Gap and Winding towards the Dusty Road. And here, in the little circle of three women and one man, there was a kind of silence. At times the air would seem to almost bend, and one or two of them would flinch. At times a fireball would crash into nothing. At times one of the women would convulse in pain and revulsion, as if something vile had touched them. But they held their ground.
Rhahr’s face was taut, a single bead of sweat trickling down his forehead. Still, his lips twitched. “You cannot win,” he said tightly. “Join me instead.” His eyes flickered to the left as he spoke, towards a woman in a green-fringed shawl. Isabel felt her heart sink. There was devastation on that Aes Sedai’s face, blood dripping from her temples, and her hand twitched as if on its own. And then she felt a strong arm pull her back – a man wearing a cloak of shifting colours was lifting her onto his horse. Isabel opened her mouth to protest, then saw the heavy body he was carrying. Without a word, she let the rider take her away from the battle.
When they reached the Malkier Gate, the man dismounted, nodding to the gateguard. Lord Dremond was in command, and looked astonished at seeing Isabel on the horse. Before he could speak, the man said shortly, “Tarwin’s Gap is breached. The Shienaran ranks are breaking. Call the Lord Commanders and rally your men.”
A shadow came over Dremond’s face as he saw the body being kept to the side carefully, yet swiftly. But the dead had done their duty, and the living had to be attended to. “Will you lead this contingent, Lord Ragyn?” asked Dremond. Ragyn, whose face was deathly pale, shook his head, “My duty is to my Aes Sedai. Four of her warders have fallen. I am the last. And still she stands fighting that madman.” Dremond nodded and saluted, hand over heart. He turned to Isabel, who stood still as stone and issued another series of orders.
The sun had set. And trollocs howled more terribly with the coming of the night. In the twilight, a dark figure knelt as a body was buried and the simple words said. And when morning came, she took a knife and shaved all but a lock of her long, dark hair, tying it up into a stern top-knot. It was not common. Neither was it unheard of. But that day, Isabel knelt before Lord Agelmar and swore the oath that had meant everything to her father.
To stand against the Shadow so long as iron is hard and stone abides. To defend the Borderlands while one drop of blood remains. To avenge what cannot be defended.
(ooc: My thanks to the player of Rhahr and the player of Ragyn for letting me use their characters. Couldn't get around to asking the Lancer players if it was okay so just turned it into reports/stories and references rather than direct speech. I was thinking of a more expanded version for this with more plot, but not sure how much readership there is anyway, so this is it for now
Hope it was a good read!)