The afternoon before the battle, Tuomo brought the troops together.
“Men,” he said. His face was stern as he projected his voice to the twenty seven gathered around a small patch of boulders. The group was gathered on the west side of the outcropping, the river a mile behind them, the forest half a mile to the east. “Boys,” he said, his face breaking into a grin. The men laughed and nudged each other. “Tonight we take the forest. Tonight we show these beasts that the serpents are not like the soft meat that the army has thrown at them so far.” The men cheered with bravado. “We are twenty-eight against countless. But we are serpents, cold and deadly. Tonight, we strike for the queen.”
The men rattled sword against shield and began to chant with a low growl. “Serpent” they said to each other. “Serpent,” the chorus rose, gaining in volume at each repetition. Finally, as if on some unseen cue, the entire band yelled in a voiceless roar at the sky.
A hush came over the group as a woman mounted the rocks where Tuomo stood. She climbed to the top with perfect balance, her hands clasped beneath her crimson robes. Standing next to Tuomo, she turned her face to look at him. With a reverant bow, he stepped to the side, yielding his posiiton.
The woman nodded to him, and touched her thumb to her chin. She stood tall atop the rock and looked out over the men. “Serpents. This battle is not yours,” she said, her voice carrying over the men. “This battle is not the queen’s.” The men muttered to each other. Arachan looked to Tuomo. The lieutenant looked away quickly – his face dark. Arachan looked back to the woman as she continued.
“This battle is for the Mother, and for Her land. She claims this forest as Her own. You are Her elite, trained in battle and fire to serve, and to survive.” The men were silent, as all eyes stared at the crimson figure. The sunset behind her painted the sky in reds and oranges. She seemed to be a part of the sky itself as she spoke to them. “In all battles, there is the whisper of death. In this battle, death is promised.” Arachan felt a shudder down his spine. This was the Mother’s Kiss – the soldier’s irreverent name for a form of last rites handed down before a battle. The serpents had fought before. They had vanquished insurmountable foes, broken defenses to crush the beseiged. The men had burned and conquered. None of them had witnessed the Mother’s Kiss. It had been legend during training. Instructors did not teach this. Informally, the men knew of the Kiss, but officially, it was never mentioned.
“Men, tonight you are not your fellow’s brother. Tonight you are not your queen’s guard. Tonight, you are the Mother’s will. Tonight, you are the extension of Her power. Tonight you bring Her judgement onto her foes.” The men stared, transfixed as the words spilled over them. Time raced past at the woman spoke, though the men were not aware of it. The sky darkened as the sun slipped below the horizon.
As if awakening from a trance, Arachan noticed that the faces of the rocks were lit with the bright yellow flare of fire. He turned to look behind him. On either side of a large banquet table was a roaring bonfire. The wood was stacked higher than a man stood, and burned with an eager flame. Embers rose into the night sky, fading to black against the dark sky.
The light of the fires lit the tables, the food laden there cast deep, flickering shadows. Aracahn saw a feast laid before him. All kinds of foods were arranged on the spread. He saw fowl, roasted and dressed with vegetables, silver bowls of cold soups, loaves of bread of various shapes and sizes. The serpents made their way slowly to the fare laid out before them. A group of red robed figures began to walk among them, inclining shaved heads and offering goblets of diluted, herbed wine.
In several bounds, Tuomo leaped his way down to stand next to Arachan. He took a cup from one of the priests and stared at it, an unbelieving smile stretching across his face. “But how is this?” he asked, as much to Arachan as any other.
“Behold, the bounty of the Mother,” the woman is scarlet said laying a hand on Tuomo’s shoulder. With her other hand she offered a cup to Arachan. “Feast, and be strengthened.” she told them. Working her way through the men to the feast table, she said aloud, “perhaps some music for the Mother?” At this, two of the priests – a tall thin man, and a slender woman – produced instruments and began to play. The man sat on a hollowed log covered with a stretched animal skin. His head shone in the firelight as he bent to beat the drum. The woman plucked at a small stringed instrument, whether made of wood or metal, Arachan could not see.
“But this food, this drink?” Arachan asked. None of the platoon ate or drank. Instead they stood, eager, waiting for their lieutenant to steer them. Some rubbed their eyes, as if waking early from vivid dreams. The beat of the drum carried through the night air, a slow procession. The woman’s voice sounded far away, as if she were singing from across the plain, and the men were hearing only the echo coming back from the face of the western mountains.
“Lieutentnat,” the woman said, approaching in a half-dance. “Have your men eat, and drink. The Mother commands it.” She took the cup from his hands and drank it back in one pull. “You will all join the fight soon enough, when the time is right. For now, your men will drink and dance. Now is the time for boasts and vows. Now is the time for brotherhood and strength. Tomorrow, you will all dine in the house of the Mother.” Her voice was hypnotic. Commanding and serene, yet stirring.
Tuomo took back the cup she offered. One of the priests refilled the cup with the dark, fragrant draught. Tuomo lifted the cup above his head. As if on cue, the music stopped. He stood there in silence as the men gathered around him. “Men,” he said to the group. The men standing around him raised their cups, feeling a moment growing. “Men,” Tuomo said again. “Nay, serpents,” he said. “Honor. Courage. Loyalty” he cried.
Arachan looked into his lieutenant’s eyes, “Clear mind Alert mind. Balanced mind” he yelled with the men in response to Tuomo. As one, every man in the platoon emptied his cup. With a large grin that was echoed on Tuomo’s face, Arachan tilted his head back and yelled “Serpents, serpents, serpents” with the rest.
The drumming priest began again, now joined by several others who had set aside their serving pitchers. The remaining priest, including the woman in scarlet, began to dance around and between the fires. Arachan felt the liqueur working its way into his blood. His heart beat to the rythym of the drummers, his head bobbed in time. The night around him began to fade as the rallying beat of the drums carried him on. The sky, the grass, the food – all of it faded in his sight. Even as the world lost importance, the faces of his brothers became sharper, more focused. Arachan grasped arms with many of the men, smiling broad and sincere at each of them.
As the night wore on, the commeradie grew stronger between the men. Arachan felt his fellows as extensions of himself. The men were no longer speaking, no longer smiling. Arachan saw his breath as a thick cloud leave his mouth in the chill air. He flexed his hands, feeling the leather of his gloves stretch against the changing shape of his fist. He longed to stretch his legs. The men around him were restless, some cracking knuckles, some bouncing on the balls of their feet. The music had stopped, and Arachan could not see any of the priests. Only the embers of the fires remaining, hissing softly in the descending dew.
In the absence of the music, the sound of metal against metal sounded, shrill and cold. Arachan touched his thumb to his chin, and took off his helmet. Kneeling to place it on the ground, he began to prepare himself for the fight ahead. On one knee, he checked his boot, looping a leather thong around his calf. He switched to kneel on his other knee to check his other boot. In this position, he lengthened each leg to loosen the muscles.
With both knees on the ground, he felt each cuisse, felt the dense metal beneath the supple black leather. His fingers traced the rough pattern of the snake on each, stopping at the point of the hilt of the sword at his waist. He stood and bent deep at the waist, stretching his hamstrings. With his head bowed, head ran his fingers over the steel scales sewn to his leather tunic. He looked at the yellow and green paint on the interlocking scales, feeling the cold of the steel guarding his chest.
He bent again at the waist to pick up his helmet. As he raised it to his head, he touched his chin with his thumb one last time and placed the steel cap on his head. The nasal pushed him from the open plain into the familiar cage of focus that he felt during battle. The black line it cast in his vision would fade as his mind forgot about the armor, and knew only of dealing rage.
Finally, he drew his sword from its scabbard. In the dark of the night, it was a dull gray line pointing from his closed fist to the heavens. He stared at the blade in silence for a moment, mutter the serpents creed to himself, “Honor. Courage. Loyalty. Clear mind. Alert mind. Balanced mind.”
Ready for what lay ahead, Arachan looked around him. The rest of the platoon were in various stages of preparedness. Some were kneeling in prayer to the Mother, some testing the edge of sword or axe. The heightened awareness from earlier remained in his mind, not diminished. If anything, Arachan felt his focus sharpen. He felt the serpents not as a group of individuals, but as a collective unit. The were become a Serpent, ready to strike for their queen, ready to die for their Mother.
Without a word spoken, the men set off at a fast walk across the plain. They made no sound as boots struck against the soft earth of the plain. The darkness of the forest loomed before them, blending the feet of the western mountains with the flat grass of the plain. With each mile, the darkness loomed larger, and the serpents moved faster. As he approached, Arachan’s focus deepened. He did not merely see the forest as a collection of trees, but rather he perceived each tree as a living thing. The order of the forest, blazed out to him. Tree sheltered moss, grass held stone. He felt the animals, smelled their fear at his approach. He also felt a deeper fear flowing from the forest. There was a fear of something that did not belong, something that broke the natural order of the world. A fierce anger rose within him. His will was swallowed in a greater will to cleanse a blight on the world, on all that was. The anger grew and boiled into an uncontrollable rage. Arachan’s heart ached to destroy and cleave. He heard himself growling, even as his fellow serpents growled.
The platoon spread into a wide line, where each man was only barely visible to his nearest neighbor. Arachan felt them all, from Tuomo to his immediate left, to the last man on either end of the line. He felt their anger echoing his own. When they hit the tree line, then men began to spring into the darkness of the forest, a burning spray of hot, angry death.